HOWEY: Late summer polls begin to show mid-term contours

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Brian Howey

NASHVILLE, Ind. (Howey Politics) – We are heading into that stretch of the election cycle where distinct trend lines begin to take shape. It was August 1994, 2006 and 2010 when the contours of those wave elections became more recognizable in polling. While voter intensity in polls has been more meaningful up to this point, the congressional generics begin to carry more heft in August and September.

The anomaly was the historic 2016 election when many pollsters, pundits and, yes, even Republican nominee Donald Trump himself, were convinced that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. That all changed around 9:00 on Election Night when the epic Trump upset came into focus.

This cycle, President Trump absolutely dominates all things politics. This election will essentially be a referendum on his first two years. Trump sucks the oxygen away from every candidate. Every nominee must compete for air time, and each is viewed through the Trump prism, opining, reacting, and in the case of Republicans, hoping to carry his base while not alienating the independent bloc needed to win elections.

As we head into August, things remain muddled, which suggests that 2018 could be as unpredictable as 2016. Last week should have been, by most accounts, a disastrous one for Trump. He was utterly disruptive at the G-7 meeting earlier this spring, and followed suit at the NATO summit, when he called the European Union a “foe,” and then came his controversial Helsinki summit with Russian President Putin.

Several polls offer differing views of the Trumpscape as we head into late summer. The first was the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, most of which was conducted before Helsinki, but included reaction to Trump’s tornadic sweep where he tormented NATO allies. Trump’s approval stood at 45 percent, a high mark for him. That included 88 percent approval from Republicans. But Trump is getting just 36 percent of independent support, and you need independents to win elections.

"Welcome to the latest and most daring of Donald Trump's high-wire acts, in which the president increases his degree of difficulty and manages yet again to stay on his feet," said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the survey with Republican Bill McInturff. "The more Trump gets criticized by the media, the more his base seems to rally behind him."

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, however, questioned the "Republican loyalty" data, suggesting that "poll after poll is skewed by an exodus of former Republicans whom he scared off. They may not be showing up as party members in surveys, and Trump’s high marks could be coming from a winnowed, favorable sample." While Trump's Indiana base appears to be strong, anecdotally I've heard from numerous Republicans who have fled the party.

Brendan Nyhan examined this possibility in the Times' Upshot section last year, describing data that suggested that "people who identify as Republican may stop doing so if they disapprove of Trump, creating a false stability in his partisan approval numbers."

That's an inverse from what Trump's Indiana campaign was telling me in 2016, that the polling wasn't picking up all of his support, in part, because some respondents didn't want to volunteer that information. The final Howey Politics/WTHR poll in 2016 had Trump leading by 11 percent, and he won Indiana with 19 percent. Some of that was due to Republicans migrating back to Trump in the final days as then-Gov. Mike Pence beseeched them to "come home."

Quinnipiac University conducted a poll after the Trump/Putin presser in Helsinki. Released Wednesday, it showed Trump's approval rating tumbling to 38 percent, with 58 percent disapproving; that compared to a 43/52 percent rating on June 20 following Trump's June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But the real eyebrow lifter was the congressional generic released by Quinnipiac on Wednesday, showing Democrats with a 51-39 percent lead. The next week or so will determine if that’s an outlier, or the beginning of a trend. Women voters are backing Democratic candidates 57-32 percent. Here in Indiana, there are seven major party female congressional candidates, including incumbent Republican Reps. Jackie Walorski and Susan Brooks. There were 57 Democratic women who had filed for General Assembly seats.

In order for the so-called "pink wave" to develop, women are going to have to turn out. There are indicators they might. Women rallies have been well attended this winter and spring across Indiana protesting school shootings and the migrant child separation issues.

It's interesting that in the Quinnipiac poll, the partisan makeup was 25 percent Republican, 31 percent Democrat and 38 percent independent. The GOP number seems low, unless pollsters aren't picking up former Republicans who have fled the party.

As for President Trump's tariffs, NBC/Marist released polls Thursday showing Trump's approval at 36 percent in agriculture-rich Michigan and Wisconsin (both of which Trump carried in 2016), and 38 percent in Minnesota, a state he almost carried.

So, let's call this grouping of polls the final snapshots before the real contours begin to harden into distinct trend lines heading into the fall. Unless, of course, President Trump becomes so unpredictable that 2018 becomes the twin of 2016. It's too early to tell whether that will be the case.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.