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Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice. The battle over his confirmation may not have been forgotten by election day (© Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There are journalistic assignments that should be refused, not as a matter of principle but out of basic common sense. Making predictions about American politics in the age of Trump is one of them. That Donald Trump won the Republican nomination was surprising. That he ended up in the White House was — well, a strong enough what-the-hell adjective does not exist (I did not expect Trump to prevail and nor, quite possibly, did he). However, the chequered nature of that win, a two per cent loss in the popular vote (the widest margin of “defeat” for a victorious candidate since 1876) but a passable, if far from overwhelming, majority in the only vote that counts — the Electoral College — was a necessary reminder that federalism matters more and elite opinion less than is sometimes assumed.

Remembering that is a good beginning to understanding why, despite Trump ratcheting up a record of gaffes, blunders and peculiarity unthinkable in any other president, earlier talk of a Democratic “wave” in the   midterm elections on November 6 has evaporated.

While that might merit a celebratory presidential Diet Coke, the Republicans still face a tricky day on the sixth. Despite a healthy economy (GDP grew at an annualised 4.2 per cent in the second quarter, the unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 per cent in September and in the same month consumer confidence reached an 18-year high), almost all the “generic” polling has the generic Democrat comfortably ahead of the generic Republican. Even without Trump in the Oval Office this was coming. An incumbent president’s party almost always struggles in the midterms. Like a British by-election, except for far higher stakes (all the seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs, as will 35 Senate seats and numerous state-level offices), midterms are often used by the voters who show up (turnout is typically around 40 per cent, compared with 60 per cent in a presidential election year) to shake a fist at those in charge.

There are incumbent presidents, and then there is Donald J. Trump, whose approval rating has been dismal for most of his time in office. As I write (late October) it is ticking up and now stands somewhere in the mid-40s, weak for a strong economy and at a roughly similar level to Barack Obama’s polling eight years ago. But that was in the aftermath of the financial crisis and shortly before game-changing midterms in which the Democrats suffered a loss of more than 60 seats and control of the House, as well as a brutal reduction in their Senate majority. The Republicans’ chances will be hurt by too much Trump in some areas — upscale suburbs and their remaining redoubts on the east and west coasts in particular — but they could, in a paradox that may mean trouble for them beyond 2018, be hurt by not enough Trump elsewhere, specifically in the rust belt, where voters who moved from Obama (or no vote) to Trump made enough of a difference in their states to tip the 2016 election the GOP’s way.
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November 1st, 2018
9:11 PM
Writing this stuff with your nose pinched between two fingers must have been a trial. No need for remorse.

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