In a troubling sign for Republicans less than two months before November's elections, Democrats' advantage on the question of which party Americans are more likely to vote for in November is ballooning, according to a new NPR/Marist poll.
The gap has widened to 12 percentage points, up from 7 in July — and it is largely because of voters in the Midwest. They have swung 13 points in Democrats' direction since July. That Midwestern shift is consistent with what Marist has found in statewide polls conducted for NBC in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota that showed President Trump's support there starting to erode.
"Every way we are looking at the data, the same general pattern is emerging," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the poll. "The Midwest is an area that is getting restless about what they hoped was going to occur and what they feel is not occurring."
Trump has waged trade wars with several countries, aiming to renegotiate deals and has instituted tariffs on imports that have been met with retaliatory tariffs on exports. Many of those have taken a toll on Midwestern farmers, for example. And some automakers have come out against Trump's moves on car imports, hitting Trump with some tough headlines.
And that appears to be sticking to the GOP now.
"Republicans have not only been fairly silent in opposition to the president," Miringoff said, "but they've been driving very hard in the Senate when it comes to his Supreme Court nominee. Congressional Republicans are buying into Trump for November. In terms of brand, they look totally in lockstep with the president — and that has become extremely clear to voters."
Overall in the poll, half of voters (50 percent) said they are more likely to vote for the Democrat in their congressional district over the Republican (38 percent). In July, the Democratic edge was 47 percent to 40 percent.
It's the largest gap on this question, known as the congressional ballot, since December 2017 when Marist showed Democrats with a 13-point advantage. The lead is also similar to Democrats' advantage on the question in 2006, the last time they took back the House.
Trump approval dangerously low
Trump's approval rating is below 40 percent in the poll. Just 39 percent said they approve of the job the president is doing.
The rating is unchanged from the last Marist poll in July. But it's the third poll this week to show Trump below 40 percent amid the release of an explosive new book from journalist Bob Woodward detailing chaos in the Trump White House and an op-ed in The New York Times from what the paper describes as a senior official who writes that there is a "resistance" within the Trump administration to save the country from the president.
The GOP's and the president's weaknesses continue to be in the suburbs and now with Midwestern voters. They retain advantages in rural areas, the South and with white, non-college-educated voters and white evangelicals. But even in rural areas and small towns, there has been some slippage from July.
"It's not that Democrats are going to carry rural America," Miringoff stressed, "but [Republicans are] not performing the way the president needs them to."
In small towns, for example, there was an 11-point swing toward Democrats, and there was a 6-point drop-off among rural voters on the congressional ballot.
The president's approval rating in the suburbs is just 34 percent. And in those same suburbs, Democrats enjoy a whopping advantage (56 percent to 34 percent) over Republicans on whom Americans are more likely to vote for.
That is particularly problematic for Republicans, because many of the key races for control of the House run through the suburbs.
There is also a massive gender gap. Men approve of the job Trump is doing, a 50 percent to 42 percent margin. But women, who are fueling Democratic hopes in these midterm elections, disapprove of his job, 62 percent to 28 percent.
In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won 41 percent of women, according to exit polls.
"This is an election about gender," Miringoff said, pointing out that party identification and race are still major factors, but the gender numbers are much bigger than might be expected after 2016.
What happens when approval slips
The NPR/Marist poll was conducted Sept. 5 through Sunday. It surveyed 777 registered voters and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The two other polls out this week that showed the president slipping below 40 percent were CNN and Quinnipiac. CNN had Trump at 37 percent and Quinnipiac 38 percent.
Slightly earlier polls that meet NPR's polling standards — from Gallup, YouGov (43 percent), Ipsos (42 percent) and Selzer (43 percent) — had Trump at or slightly above 40 percent.
For context, let's look at some history to see where that ranks and what it could mean for the GOP's chances in two months. Just one president since polling began was below 40 percent in the last Gallup poll before a president's first midterm: Harry Truman in 1946. (Gallup has comprehensive historical data on presidential approval ratings.)
Just 33 percent of Americans approved of the job Truman was doing less than a year after the end of World War II. His party wound up losing 55 House and 12 Senate seats. Truman's 12-seat loss in the Senate remains the worst for a president's first midterm since 1862, according to numbers from Vital Statistics on Congress.
It's hard to compare to just one president, however. So widening out the lens, there have been plenty of presidents who were below 50 percent before their first midterm. And on average, their parties lost 44 House seats and five Senate seats.
A performance like that for Republicans this year would give Democrats control of both the House and Senate. (Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to gain control of the House and two seats to take the Senate.)
Every election, though, has its unique factors. Not every president below 50 percent had as favorable a Senate map as Republicans do. Not every president below 50 percent had structural House district advantages because of redistricting or the fact that the opposition party has holed up in cities. And, arguably, not since the Civil War has the country been as polarized politically as it is today.
But, overall, first-term midterms are not kind to the president's party. (On average, they have lost 29 House and three Senate seats dating back to Truman.)
And it's even worse when the country thinks the president isn't doing a very good job.
"Presidents' approval ratings, when they are low in midterm elections cause havoc for the party in power," Miringoff noted. And Trump's approval rating, he added, is "casting a cloud over the GOP Congress."
Performances By A President's Party In His First Midterm
Sorted by most to least House losses, based on Gallup approvals, Vital Statistics data
2010 — Obama 45% approval – Lost 63 House, Lost 6 Senate
1946 — Truman 33% approval — Lost 55 House, Lost 12 Senate
1994 — Clinton 46% approval – Lost 54 House, Lost 8 Senate
1974 — Ford 54% approval – Lost 48 House, Lost 4 Senate
1966 — Johnson 44% approval – Lost 48 House, Lost 4 Senate
1982 — Reagan 42% approval – Lost 26 House, Gained 1 Senate
1954 — Eisenhower 61% approval – Lost 18 House, Lost 1 Senate
1978 – Carter 49% approval – Lost 15 House, Lost 3 Senate
1970 — Nixon 58% approval – Lost 12 House, Gained 1 Senate
1990 — HW Bush 58% approval – Lost 8 House, Lost 1 Senate
1962 — Kennedy 61% approval – Lost 4 House, Gained 2 Senate
2002 — Bush 63% approval – Gained 8 House, Gained 1 Senate
Correction: September 12, 2018 12:00 am — An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Harry Truman's Democrats lost 45 seats in the House in 1946. The party lost 55 seats in that midterm. In addition, the earlier version said when a president's approval rating is below 50 percent ahead of his first midterm, on average, his party loses 41 House seats and six Senate seats. Using numbers from Vital Statistics on Congress, the president's party lost 44 House seats and five Senate seats. Likewise, the story initially said first-term midterms on average end with the president's party losing 28 House and three Senate seats. Using Vital Statistics data, it is 29 House and three Senate seats.