The Obama history that Trump may be doomed to repeat

Barack Obama and Donald Trump have at least one thing in common: They both built unique coalitions that are proving difficult to replicate when they aren’t on the ballot.

Obama won two presidential campaigns by relatively comfortable margins, helping boost other Democrats those years, but he watched helplessly as Democrats sustained big losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.

President Trump, fresh off campaigning for a likely losing House candidate in Pennsylvania, may be struggling with the same fate. As different as the two presidents are in ideology and temperament, Obama and Trump each has a special magnetism with a subset of the electorate. But that draw applies only to them, not to other candidates in their parties.

Obama drew an outpouring of African American voters in 2008 and 2012, as well as a flood of young voters of all kinds who saw him as an inspirational figure. Trump in 2016 persuaded millions of voters, particularly across the Rust Belt, that they had been given a raw deal by Obama and previous Republican presidents and that it was time to shock the establishment with a non-politician in the White House.

“You almost have to be a cultural phenomenon to be president these days,” said Ken Spain, the former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Spain saw that firsthand in 2008 as the Obama wave swept across the country. House Republicans fell to their lowest levels in a generation, losing more than 20 seats. In 2010, however, the Obama coalition failed to reassemble, leading to historic losses for Democrats up and down the ballot.

Some Democrats now say history is repeating itself, in the opposite direction.

“The existential threat in a midterm is low energy,” said former congressman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). “It’s almost always impossible to replicate presidential electoral energy in a midterm environment.”

Israel did two terms as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In 2012, as Obama won reelection, House Democrats picked up eight seats and thought they had positioned themselves to win back the majority in the 2014 midterms.

Instead, with no Obama on the ballot, Democratic turnout tanked in 2014 and the party ended up at its lowest level of House seats since before the Great Depression.

All told, in 2008 and 2012, Democrats added about 30 House seats. In the two midterms, they suffered a net loss of more than 75 seats.

Now Republicans are struggling to figure out how to manage this problem. GOP strategists say Trump helped increase turnout among conservative voters with his appearance in Pennsylvania on Saturday but managed only to move the race from what they worried would be a convincing win by Democrat Conor Lamb to a narrow Lamb victory.

But whatever boost there may have been shouldn’t reassure concerned GOP incumbents. More than 100 of them are running in districts where Trump did worse in 2016 than in Pennsylvania’s 18th. Trump won there by more than 19 points, and Republican Mitt Romney won by almost that much in 2012.

Analysts have long debated whether to run with or from a president in a midterm. Obama and now Trump entered their respective midterm election cycles in low standing, with approval ratings below 50 percent.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and other Republican leaders have made clear that they want their candidates to run on the accomplishments of the past 14 months, particularly the tax-cut package. They want to focus on policy.

But that’s not Trump. Republicans have a president who won, in large part, based on his outsize personality and willingness to say things few other politicians would. Trump demonstrated Saturday night that he won’t become a disciplined messenger talking about policy prescriptions. In a rally outside Pittsburgh, Trump gave a 75-minute stump speech that barely mentioned the candidate he was there to campaign for.

“The president is more than happy to keep the focus on himself,” Spain said. “Without him being on the ballot, his personality becomes more of a liability. He’s this cultural phenomenon that is hard to replicate.”

Pennsylvania 18th special election results

Those most die-hard Trump supporters see the president on stage and then are left wanting when looking at any other regular rank-and-file Republican. A recent political-science study estimated that 9 percent of voters who chose Obama in 2012 switched to Trump in 2016 — those are probably not voters who care all that much whether Ryan is House speaker next year.

“Trump fired up Republican voters with his showmanship in 2016, but that’s not transferrable to any old Republican member of Congress,” Israel said.

Trump probably helped a little Tuesday in a conservative district. But in dozens of swing districts, particularly in the suburbs, Trump is unpopular and GOP candidates are fearful of wrapping themselves around his brand.

“He drives moderates and independents to the Democrat,” Israel said.

In 2010 and 2014, most Democrats decided to try to distance themselves from Obama, who focused largely on behind-the-scenes fundraising to boost their campaigns.

It didn’t work. Voters upset with Obama’s presidency took out their anger on those Democrats while a chunk of the presidential coalition did not bother to show up to vote. Think Kay Hagan, the one-term Democratic senator from North Carolina who was exceedingly cautious in her six years in office. She lost in 2014.

Lamb’s apparent victory suggests that the playing field is much larger than anticipated, almost all on the Republican side. Spain said that in 2010, after Democrats won a highly contested special election in western Pennsylvania, each side was slow to realize how big the wave was against Democrats.

Spain estimates Republicans have until the summer to change the arc of the midterms, the point after which things tend to keep getting worse. “The political environment begins to cement in July, and it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse the trajectory at that point,” he said.

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