Riding Republican majorities in both chambers last year, President Donald Trump put up strong numbers for the second consecutive year in getting support for his nominees and legislation he backed, winning 93.4 percent of the time, according to data compiled for CQ’s annual vote study of presidential support.
That’s among the highest for any chief executive since CQ began tracking the data in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration — third to be exact. But it is down 5 percentage points from Trump’s record-high level of support during his first year in office, when Congress supported his positions 98.7 percent of the time.
Trump’s 2017 figure set a bicameral record, besting President Barack Obama’s 96.7 percent success rate in 2009. Obama, like Trump, benefited from two years of his party controlling both chambers of Congress before losing the House majority.
More than state or district or other factors shaping an election cycle, what matters most in predicting how members will vote when a president has taken a position in America’s current hyper-partisan era is whether the lawmaker and president belong to the same party. So with a Democratic House newly installed for the 116th Congress, Trump’s winning pattern might abruptly become a thing of the past.
Though the 45th president’s support figure dipped last year, it was nearly 6 percentage points higher than the previous Republican president’s highest score: George W. Bush ended 2002 with an 87.8 percent success rate.
Despite periodic criticism last year from GOP lawmakers — and signs of their support cracking since the recent partial government shutdown — they again were reluctant to cast or even hold votes that appeared likely to fail, especially ones that might anger Trump and his conservative base. The fear of being targeted by a Trump-backed primary challenger with further-right leanings has been perhaps the president’s most effective tool in winning and retaining his party’s support.
Watch: A behind-the-scenes look at CQ’s Vote Studies
Of course, the luxury of Republican control of both chambers primed the pump for all Trump’s 2018 winning. One longtime Capitol Hill observer and analyst chalks up much of the success to a combination of factors: members eager to keep leadership happy, and Republican leaders seeing few reasons to buck Trump.
“Given how leadership in both the House and Senate seemed reluctant to challenge the president … that has definitely been a major factor,” said G. William Hoagland, an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in the mid-2000s. The votes of Republican members, he said, “do reflect the strength of their conservative convictions, which while not totally in sync with President Trump, nonetheless requires them to hold the line.”
The recent Washington drama that culminated with Trump supporting a border security spending agreement to avert a government shutdown illustrated that. As the president and his staff reviewed the legislation — and whether to trigger another partial shutdown — Senate Republican leaders were reluctant to bring the bill to the floor if passing it would anger Trump. “We’d like to know it’s a bill the president’s going to sign,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune, the South Dakota Republican, told reporters Feb. 14, just hours before Trump signaled his support.
The voting data shows Trump again last year enjoyed overwhelming support from his own party.
GOP senators voted with Trump 93 percent of the time, down slightly from his 96 percent rate in 2017. House Republicans stuck with the president’s stated positions 89 percent of the time, down from 93 percent during his first year.
House Democrats backed Trump-supported positions 31 percent of the time last year, on average, almost twice as often as in 2017. They opposed his stances 66 percent of the time, a considerable drop from 83 percent in 2017, which was second only to their opposition to George W. Bush during his second-to-last year in office (90 percent in 2007). (The figures do not add up to 100 percent because representatives missed some of the votes.)
As they did in the president’s first year, Senate Democrats supported his stated positions an average of 37 percent of the time. They opposed him 60 percent of the time, down from 62 percent in 2017.
Within the GOP, even some of Trump’s sharpest detractors have found it difficult to resist him much.
Former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, who retired in January, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina both have sharply criticized Trump — the former for the president’s foreign policy moves and the latter for his racially-tinged rhetoric.
Scott last year blocked a vote on Trump’s nomination of Thomas Farr to a federal judgeship in North Carolina over allegations of racism. The nomination expired with the last Congress, but White House officials want to revive it.
According to a McClatchy report, Scott expressed frustration with Trump’s insistence. “Why they have chosen to expend so much energy on this particular nomination I do not know, but what I do know is they have not spent anywhere near as much time on true racial reconciliation efforts … or working to move our party together towards a stronger, more unified future,” he said.
Likewise, Corker hasn’t pulled punches over Trump’s trade disputes with allies and rivals alike.
“The United States just seems to wake up and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what we’re doing — it’s kind of a ready, fire and aim,” he told reporters in September.
Yet, despite their sometimes deep frustrations with the president, Scott and Corker in 2018 rarely split with him. On issues where Trump stated his view, Scott voted with the president 99 percent of the time, and Corker 97 percent.
In short, even for the two sometime Trump critics, party came first.
Other factors also helped Trump’s numbers. Senate rules changes eliminating the 60-vote threshold for judicial and executive nominees — which, by definition, arrive with a clear presidential position — meant the White House didn’t need Democrats’ approval. Though Democrats used rules to slow consideration of a long list of nominees, there was virtually no chance Republicans would fail to confirm them.
Trump had a perfect score last year on nominations that made it to the Senate floor, with all 91 votes ending in confirmations for executive and judicial branch nominees.
Subtract those confirmation votes, and the rate of success plunges. Trump took a position on only 8.7 percent of other Senate votes. Of those 16 votes, he won nine and lost seven, just over 56 percent.
Trump campaigned as a once-in-a-generation real estate mogul whose negotiating skills and experience would help him set a new tone of collaboration in Washington. But his alleged deal-making savvy already is being tested since control of Congress is now divided with a Democratic-run House, which immediately united to stand up to him on his demands for border wall funding. And he faces tough hurdles in attempts to repeat the bipartisan successes of 2018.
Despite Trump’s claims of being a master negotiator, he failed to score a single major bipartisan legislative victory in his first year. “The one thing the guy has never done is try to expand his base or his support,” said one Republican pollster.
Last year, however, he signed several sweeping bills that had support from both parties, including a criminal justice overhaul, opioid legislation, the farm bill and changes affecting veterans’ care. He highlighted those successes in his Feb. 5 State of the Union address. “Now is the time for bipartisan action. Believe it or not, we have already proven that it is possible,” he told a joint session of Congress. “As we have seen, when we are united, we can make astonishing strides for our country.”
But his third address to a joint session was a microcosm of his presidency. For all his talk of bipartisanship in the first half of the speech, he quickly turned on Democrats with repeated digs, further alienating them with hard-line rhetoric about illegal immigration and a lengthy pitch for his proposed southern border wall.
From Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York to rank-and-file members, Democrats have shown few signs so far of keeping Trump’s vote support figures at such high levels.
Following the president’s State of the Union address, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat, described the evening as “an unsettling night for our country.”
“The president failed to offer any plan, any vision at all, for our future,” she tweeted. “We’re flying without a pilot. And I’m not here to comfort anyone about that fact.”
If Trump wants to strike deals on major legislation, like an infrastructure overhaul or lowering prescription drug prices, Democrats claim they are willing to work with him. That potential cooperation would bolster his voting support score.
Following a Jan. 28 phone call with the president, Pelosi said they discussed issues they could work on together, including infrastructure.
“So I look forward to moving forward on that,” she said.
So far in 2019, however, efforts that might lead Democrats to vote with Trump have yet to materialize.
If the president wants to pass major legislation in 2019 and 2020 in preparation for his expected bid for a second term, he will need the support of large numbers of House Democrats and at least a handful of their party’s caucus in the Senate, where legislation still requires 60 votes to end debate.
History suggests Trump’s average will likely plummet this year. For instance, Obama’s support score dipped from 85.8 percent in 2011 with Democratic control on the Hill to 57 percent the next year after a GOP tidal wave gave that party control of the House. After Bush lost both chambers in 2006, his support score fell from 80 percent to 47.7 percent.
For Trump to avoid a similar fate, top Democrats have signaled he will need to focus less on placating his conservative base and more on finding ways to attract Democratic support.
The morning after Trump’s State of the Union address, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer panned the president’s approach and message. “It reminded me more of his political rallies than the State of the Union,” the Maryland Democrat said.
And one former White House official predicted Trump will struggle to get Democrats’ support in numbers large enough to pass legislation and keep his scores high.
“When he perceives things are looking bad for him, he lashes out and his base loves it,” Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the Brookings Institution, said recently. “But Democrats don’t, and he’s only alienating independents. He doesn’t do a thing to try to expand that base, which is all he seems to care about.”
But the president himself blames Democratic leaders for his struggles so far with the party. As he wrangled over a border security spending deal with Democrats this month, Trump tweeted: “I don’t think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal.”
Regardless of the reasons or the president’s attempts to explain them away, he is faced with a new reality that will likely alter the winning he has become accustomed to under a GOP-controlled Congress.
Ryan Kelly, Lindsey McPherson and Jason Dick contributed to this report.
Guide to the Vote Studies
CQ has analyzed voting patterns of members of Congress since 1945. The three current studies — presidential support, party unity and voting participation — have been conducted in a consistent manner since 1954.
Selecting votes: CQ bases its vote studies on all floor votes for which senators and House members were asked to vote “yea” or “nay.” In 2018, there were 498 such roll-call votes in the House and 274 in the Senate. The House total excludes two quorum calls in 2018.
The House total counts all votes on procedural matters, including votes to approve the journal.
Individual scores: Member scores are based only on the votes each actually cast. This makes individual support and opposition scores total 100 percent. The same method is used to identify the leading scorers.
Overall scores: To be consistent with previous years, calculations of average scores by chamber and party are based on all eligible votes, whether or not all members cast a “yea” or “nay.” The lack of participation by lawmakers in a roll call vote reduces chamber and party average support and opposition scores.
Rounding scores: In the tables, scores are rounded to the nearest percentage point. Scores for the presidential and party support leaders are reported to one decimal point in order to rank them more precisely.
This story originally appeared in CQ Magazine’s “Annual Vote Studies & 2018 Key Votes” special report on Feb. 25.