One interpretation of the midterm election results in the Rust Belt, where Democrats made substantial gains (though not across the board), is that Trump’s unpopularity dragged down Republicans. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania propelled Trump to victory in 2016, and his inability to sustain a base of support there cost Republican candidates for state and federal office – or so the interpretation goes.
There’s probably a measure of truth to this. Trump’s approval in Michigan, for instance, lags at 44 percent, according to CNN exit polls; the state re-elected a Democratic senator without much fanfare, as well as a new governor, and several well-established GOP House incumbents were ousted.
But another interpretation is that Republicans were never all that popular in Michigan to begin with, notwithstanding Trump’s squeaker of a victory two years ago. He won the state in 2016 not because of some fortuitous rejuvenation of the Republican brand, but because of the heterodox nature of his campaign style and policy platform. Put another way, he won in spite of being a Republican: not because of it.
Under this theory, Trump’s fortunes in the Midwest haven’t sagged much at all. In fact, notwithstanding Republican losses this week, there’s a case to be made that Trump is actually more popular in Michigan today than he was in 2016. According to the very same CNN exit poll, Trump’s favorability rating in Michigan was only 39 percent two years ago, even though he won the state with 48 percent of the vote. Many people who didn’t particularly like Trump evidently voted for him anyway. If voters continue to distinguish in their minds between Trump and the wider GOP, whose lackluster governance led to major losses in Congress, that will be decidedly to Trump’s political advantage.
Ironically, the Democrats winning control of the House makes it easier for Trump to cultivate a ‘brand’ that is more amenable to nationwide electoral success, and in the Midwest particularly. Paul Ryan’s tired ‘fiscal responsibility’ conservatism is broadly unpopular with the public. With Ryan finally out to pasture, Trump has an opportunity to govern with a different set of policy priorities in mind – priorities that are more in line with the heterodox outlook he advocated in 2016. For the first two years of his term, Trump effectively outsourced his legislative agenda to Ryan; the result was a failed Obamacare repeal attempt and tax cuts that enriched the wealthy. Any standard-fare Republican would’ve pursued the exact same initiatives, and Trump won the presidency precisely because he did not appear to be a standard-fare Republican. With Republicans now no longer able to advance unpopular policies, Trump could spend the next two years differentiating himself from congressional Republicans’ outmoded ‘conventionally conservative’ legislative agenda – which will be particularly necessary if he wants to win again in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Trump’s ability to govern with Rust Belt interests at the forefront will depend to a large extent on whether he can coexist effectively with Nancy Pelosi. His ‘deal-maker’ image would seem to indicate that this is at least possible, and there are a variety of popular legislative measures he could enact with Democratic support (infrastructure, healthcare, etc.). But his personal pettiness, score-settling, and insane tweeting habits could easily obliterate any semblance of a workable legislative process. For many Democrats, even appearing to cooperate with Trump is tantamount to endorsing fascism and thus a nonstarter. Still, some shrewd maneuvering by Trump could force Democrats’ hand – and shrewd is what he’ll need to be, because if he wants to maintain his Rust Belt voting bloc, he’ll need to deliver something beyond culture war outrage and humorous media feuds to the ‘downscale’ voters who made his presidency possible. People ultimately tend to vote in their self-interest, and for economically dislocated Midwesterners to perceive re-electing Trump as in their self-interest, it would behoove him to play nice with Nancy.