Now that Donald Trump demands our attention yet again, it’s worthwhile to sort out his broader impact on national and Minnesota elections. Trump has proven to be a bad bet for Republicans. Nate Silver of the 538 website posted a tweet that explains why.
In response to a tweet by journalist Benjy Sarlin arguing Trump had strongly motivated activists in both parties, Silver replied:
“I read this more asymmetrically. Trump (a) turns off swing voters and (b) motivates Dems. In exchange, he (c) motivates his base who have (d) disproportionate influence in the Senate & Electoral College. But (c) seems to go away when Trump himself isn’t on the ballot.”
This hits the nail on the head. That “asymmetry” helps Democrats big time.
Trump makes the GOP competitive when he is on the ballot. But his personal “brand” is so toxic to his political opponents that the GOP tends to fare worse when he is not on the ballot. An examination of the U.S. Congressional and Minnesota state legislative races during the Trump era bears this out.
In 2016, Trump won the Electoral College and ran a competitive national race despite losing the national popular vote to Hilary Clinton by 48.1% to 46%. In that election, the GOP held onto control of the U.S. House and senate despite losing a net of two senate and six house seats.
In Minnesota, Trump in 2016 came close to carrying the state, losing by only 44,593 votes, with Hillary Clinton garnering 46.4% to his 44.9%. Minnesota Republicans triumphed in state legislative elections, taking control of the state house 77 to 57 and state senate 34 to 33.
In 2018, with Trump not on the ballot, the GOP suffered at the polls. The party lost the U.S. House, dropping a whopping 39 seats, but managed to gain two U.S. Senate seats. In Minnesota, Democrat Gov. Tim Walz comfortably won the governorship over Republican Jeff Johnson by 53.8% to 42.2% and Democrats made big gains to take state house control by 75 to 59.
In 2020, Trump nationally lost to Joe Biden by 51.3% to 46.9% and Republicans gained 11 seats in the U.S. House while losing three in the U.S. Senate. In Minnesota, Trump’s appeal had lessened even more as he lost to Joe Biden by 52.4% to 45.3%. The state’s GOP, however, maintained state senate control with 34 seats and gained six house seats while remaining in the minority in that chamber.
The 2022 national and Minnesota election results lend further support to Silver’s analysis. Midterm elections produce major losses for a president’s party, particularly when the president’s job approval in polls is below 50%, as was President Joe Biden’s. Nationally, Republicans underperformed expectations, narrowly taking the U.S. House, 222 to 213 – a gain of nine seats – while Democrats gained control of the Senate 51 to 49 by picking up a seat.
2022 was a DFL romp in Minnesota as Walz comfortably maintained the governorship with 52.3% over GOP challenger Scott Jensen’s 44.6%. The DFL kept control of the state House 70 to 64 and managed to pick up enough seats in the state senate to eke out a 35 to 34 seat majority.
So what is behind this pattern? Antagonism toward Trump has increased Democratic turnout and fundraising in every national and state election. This may be a long-term advantage to Democrats delivered by Trump. GOP candidates in 2022 were outspent in virtually all major U.S. Senate races and in the Minnesota state gubernatorial and most Minnesota state legislative races.
What has the GOP received electorally in return? Trump has run competitively while losing the popular vote in two national elections. The GOP has scored some successes in elections when Trump is on the ballot. But any Trump benefit is pretty much restricted to Trump’s ballot appearance. Even so, Trump’s ballot presence does not win him the popular vote nationally or in Minnesota.
This has proven to be a bad electoral bet for Republicans. Nationally, it has brought some success with voters but some major defeats. In Minnesota, the verdict is even more stark. Trump has become unpopular in the state, dragging the GOP down with him.
Ultimately, Trump is all about Trump and his personal interests. His electoral record shows he has not built broader success for his party. Minnesota Republicans will discover that to their chagrin, once they get over their idolatry of the man.
Steven Schier is the emeritus Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.