The Ripon Forum

Volume 51, No. 3

June 2017

Great Expectations

By on June 25, 2017


As Donald Trump reaches the six month mark of his presidency, the media predictably is focused almost solely on the short term. An assessment at six months is inevitable politically.  But Republicans need to look through a different lens and play a smarter long game if they are going to be successful legislatively and in the coming mid-term elections.  For Republicans, the 2018 mid-terms present a rare and not easily attainable opportunity to win a consolidating election.

What do we mean by a consolidating election and why is it so difficult to achieve?  One of the toughest challenges for a majority party after a presidential win is to repeat its success in the next election by retaining the support of the voter groups that made up its winning coalition.  After an election, voters have certain expectations based on the presidential and congressional agendas defined by candidates and parties in the election.  When it comes to winning a consolidating election, performance tops politics.  It’s all about keeping promises by getting the job done or, at a minimum, be seen as moving on policies that meet voter expectations.  When voters are disappointed in progress, the party in power can pay a steep price.

For example, after President Obama’s win in 2008, books were written about the death of the Republican Party and the permanent Democratic majority. Two years later, the Democratic coalition was gone, with Republicans building a mid-term coalition that stayed in place in 2014 thanks, in large part, to Obama’s decision to focus on health care when the electorate still had serious concerns about the state of the economy.

Similarly, in 1992, despite the Clinton campaign’s famous “it’s the economy, stupid” message, President Clinton spent his first two years focused on a series of secondary issues including a failed health care plan and, as a result, lost the House decisively in 1994.  After the 1980 election, when jobs and the economy were the central issues, President Reagan did move on economic issues and hoped to win the House in 1982.  Instead, unemployment hit 10%, and the GOP lost 26 seats.

While the 2016 election saw Republicans make historic inroads into various voter groups, the opportunity can be quickly lost if voters are disappointed in the results of a government with GOP control.

While the 2016 election saw Republicans make historic inroads into various voter groups, the opportunity can be quickly lost if voters are disappointed in the results of a government with GOP control of Congress and the presidency.  To avoid that outcome and win in 2018, Republicans must enact a policy agenda that connects with the voters who made up the 2016 majority coalition. First, they must build support among key groups that voted for Trump after historically not voting for Republicans, including union households, low and middle-income voters, and those with less than a college degree.  Second, Republicans must expand support among coalition groups crucial in a midterm coalition — independents, women, young voters, and Hispanics. While the partisan mix of Senate races in 2018 should be favorable to Republicans, only a carefully crafted strategy that addresses voter expectations will deliver majorities in both houses.

The 2016 election presented a uniquely volatile environment, with both party frontrunners having unprecedented negatives. However, voter frustration and economic anxiety led the electorate to vote for change over the status quo, an attitude that remains today and will likely influence the outcome of the next election. In the national exit polls, voters were asked to choose which of four candidate attributes was most important to them. The top attribute was “can bring needed change” (39%), and among the group that values this attribute most highly, Trump won overwhelmingly by 82-14.

Contrary to conventional wisdom at the time, voters gave Republicans an across-the-board win.  But to whom much is given, much is required.  Now, voters expect the President and the GOP Congress to deliver the change they promised.  Without it, those same voters may well rock the boat again in 2018 or, at a minimum, stay home.

People often ask us to predict what the political environment will look like a year from now. The answer isn’t all that complicated.  The political outlook for Republicans will largely depend on two basic statistics: how many jobs have been created and have real wages increased. In other words, have Republicans delivered the kind of change, especially economic change, voters expected?

But in the context of expectations, how do voters define and assess change?  In a recent study for the Congressional Institute, we asked respondents to describe and rank the change they want to see from this President and Congress. The top four were jobs coming back to the U.S., dealing with terrorism, upholding the Constitution, and an increase in incomes. Voters see jobs coming back as one of the best ways to improve the economy and their personal situations.

Republicans’ top priority in the coming months must be to develop, enact and implement legislative accomplishments (and executive actions) that will directly address these major areas of concern. This means offering voters an anti-status quo “product line” with clear benefits to people, their families, and their communities.  For example, in the context of jobs coming back to the U.S., there are a number of policy opportunities that can meet that definition of real change such as tax reform, regulatory reform, and health care reform.

Republicans’ top priority in the coming months must be to develop, enact and implement legislative accomplishments (and executive actions) that will directly address major areas of concern.

Both parties have a history and long term standing with voters when it comes to how issues are handled which affects the starting position for each side when proposing policies on a particular issue. The chart below shows issue handling on the major issues from recent survey research done by the Winston Group.  Republicans’ strongest issue is defense/terrorism, with a lead of 17 points. They also have advantages on the economy (+8) and jobs (+9). On taxes, Republicans have a five point lead, but with a margin that close, only a strong, comprehensive tax reform plan that people believe will improve their personal economic situations will win the issue. Republicans trail by 8 on health care, in part, because the electorate is not yet clear on what the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act will do.

When it comes to voter expectations and issue preferences, Republicans have an advantage at the moment.  But after eight years of President Obama in the White House, House and Senate Republicans have to rethink how they will govern and how they want to work with each other and with a more amenable White House to make the most of the huge opportunity they have been given. They are now in charge. This means that not only do Republicans have to be for things, but they have to demonstrate and explain how these policies will improve the lives of people and their communities.

Republicans have to transition from the mindset of “reacting to President Obama” into a new era of creating Republican initiatives that deliver results and provide a governing framework.  People want change and they want it soon.  They expect Congress and the President to get something done and get government working again for them.

In a focus group after the election, one voter in Pittsburgh told us that it now felt like the country was in “the bottom of the ninth and there are two outs.”  In other words, this might be America’s last chance to get it right. Republicans in Congress need to focus on voter priorities and they need to deliver results.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group, a Washington, D.C., strategic planning and survey research firm.  Myra Miller is the firm’s Senior Vice President and Co-Founder.



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