August 10, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Will ‘Save the President’ Work? Probably Not.
Americans tend to vote against things they know, not for things they don't.
The most important thing about the leaked audio* of US Rep. Devin Nunes saying the Republicans must keep the US House to prevent the Democrats from impeaching the president is not this: evidence the party deserves defeat in November’s midterms.
We already knew that. We already knew, as the Post’s Jennifer Rubin said, that House Republicans “exercise no responsibility, it’s always about the party, it’s always about protecting the president and never about doing their constitutional obligation.”
The most important thing the audio tells us is this: what the Republicans think is the most important thing to say to the base. Remember, the recording was made during a closed-door fundraiser for US Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House GOP conference. McMorris Rodgers is vulnerable. She barely won her primary Tuesday. Her Democratic opponent is a former state senator who has on hand nearly as much cash. All this plus the fact that her district really shouldn’t be competitive*.
Put yourself in Nunes’ shoes. What do you say to persuade donors to write checks given they’re unmoved by normal GOP priorities like tax cuts and deregulation. (We know they’re unmoved by normal GOP priorities, because Nunes chose to talk about something else.) You are going to say something like this: I know you don’t like Trump, but I know what you don’t like more! McMorris Rodgers is the last thing standing between the president and the Democrat Party taking him out!
Does this mean Nunes has reason to believe the president did something worthy of impeachment? I don’t trust Nunes to make that assessment. Do you? The best we can say is he thinks that fear-mongering is persuasive—that if he and other Republicans can whoop and wail enough, they can rally the GOP base to stave off defeat.
He isn’t alone. Steve Bannon*, Trump’s former advisor, is saying it. He told Vanity Fair recently that, “This election is very simple. It’s an up or down vote on impeachment.” One of Trump’s attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, is saying it. He might drag out the interview process with Special Counsel Robert Mueller so that it overlaps with the midterms.
I’m thinking the continuance of the investigation would actually help because people are getting tired of it, and (the president) needs something to energize his voters because the Democrats look like they’re energized. Nothing would energize (Republicans) more than, ‘Let’s save the president.’
Aside from the fact that it’s a weak campaign slogan—because it suggests Trump has already done something worthy of impeachment—is there really nothing that would energize the base like “save the president”? I’m told by a Washington correspondent that Republican strategists think it would work. But those strategists can’t get Trump to stay on message. “Save the president” might be their least-worst option.
Republican voters have signaled they have soured on Trump. Consider Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional district, where he won by 11 points in 2016. Thirty percent of registered Democrats voted. The majority were Republicans who supported Democrat Danny O’Connor in such numbers he almost won*.
Consider too that American voters tend to be retrospective voters, not prospective voters. Those are terms from political science. In brief, they mean people make balloting decisions based on past events rather future possibilities. My sense is that the future is too abstract while the past, even if you misunderstand it, or don’t understand it at all, is concrete enough to at least make an educated guess.
This is related to another aspect of voter behavior. Most people don’t vote for something or someone. They vote against something or someone. If you didn’t like Barack Obama in 2010 and 2014, you probably voted for Republican candidates. It’s important to note that this is not the same as being for the Republican agenda. You might not have known what that was. But you did know you didn’t like Obama’s. You already saw it in action. In any case, the result was the president’s party losing.
The president and his allies may not know, or may not appreciate sufficiently, that some of the people who voted for him in 2016 were really voting against Hillary Clinton. They knew her. Everyone knew her. But they didn’t know Donald Trump.
They do now after nearly two years of Trump—a president who has consumed more attention, time and critical thinking than any previous president. It should be no surprise that Trump voters are taking a second look at the Democrats. They may not know what the Democratic agenda is, but they know they don’t like Trump.
*The leaked audio was first reported by “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
*Washington state’s 5th Congressional district has been safely Republican for years. Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales is calling the 5th district “likely Republican.” That’s between “solid” and “lean,” and two degrees from “toss-up.” But the Editorial Board’s election forecaster Chris Luongo disagrees. He has the 5th district at “tilt Democratic.” “It’s definitely not safe,” Chris told me. “This isn’t a district that should be competitive. It’s a very bad sign for Republicans.”
*Bannon and other former Trump aides have launched a nonprofit whose express purpose, near as I can tell, is to scare the bejesus out of the Republican base. It’s basically one message, Bannon said: “They’re going to impeach him.”
*The race is still undecided. Republican Troy Balderson declared victory Tuesday. But the Cincinnati Enquirer reported Thursday that 588 voters went uncounted, bringing the differential down to 1,564 votes. I’ll report more as I know more.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.