After a tumultuous 2018 that saw them lose their House majority, Republicans often seem eager to dismiss those midterm results as typical while pining for the next election when President Donald Trump will top the ballot and drive turnout in their favor.
A closer look, however, shows Trump may not be as extraordinary a candidate as he gets credit for, and his status as GOP savior might be overrated.
Trump is regarded as a Republican hero, not only for winning the presidency in 2016 but also for delivering electoral votes from states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for the first time in at least 28 years. But in two of those states, the president actually underperformed a typical GOP candidate, according to Inside Elections’ Vote Above Replacement, or VAR, metric.
VAR measures the strength of a political candidate relative to a typical candidate from their party by comparing the percentage of the candidate’s vote with the party’s Baseline. Baseline is the trimmed mean of each party’s performance in partisan, contested statewide elections over the four most recent general election cycles.
In 2016, Trump carried Michigan with 47.5 percent of the vote. But the 2016 Republican Baseline for Michigan was 48.9 percent, meaning he underperformed a typical GOP candidate, with a -1.4 VAR. Trump carried Wisconsin with 47.2 percent, but he had a -3.4 VAR because the GOP Baseline for Wisconsin was 50.6 percent. Pennsylvania was the only of the three states Trump flipped where he overperformed: Trump had a +1.4 VAR because the GOP Baseline was 46.8 percent, and he carried the Keystone State with 48.2 percent.
Overall, Trump had a positive VAR in 15 states and a negative VAR in 35 states, including some of the most important battlegrounds.
The president had a negative VAR in seven of the 10 closest states from 2016, including Arizona (-4.7), Florida (-3.5), Wisconsin (-3.4), Nevada (-2.6), Michigan (-1.4), North Carolina (-0.8) and New Hampshire (-0.8). That’s potentially bad news for Trump’s reelection prospects if the GOP’s overall standing has diminished during his first term and he underperforms again.
Trump had a positive VAR in three of the closest states from 2016, including Maine (+2.3), Pennsylvania (+1.4) and Minnesota (+1.0). That’s both good news and concerning for the GOP considering those are the only three states broadly considered battlegrounds or emerging battlegrounds where the president is overperforming a typical GOP candidate. For example, Trump earning positive VAR scores in Kentucky (+8.3), Missouri (+5.0), Oklahoma (+2.1) and Alabama (+1.9) doesn’t change the Electoral College math. On the other hand, Trump had negative VAR scores in Texas (-5.8) and Georgia (-4.3), where Republicans’ grip is loosening, and Colorado (-4.8) and Virginia (-2.6), which might already be lost to them for the foreseeable future.
All of this doesn’t mean Trump can’t or won’t win reelection. Since 2016, he has had time to change his standing in some states.
And Republicans could benefit from increased turnout in 2020, when their most popular candidate will be on the ballot, compared with 2018, when he wasn’t. But these statistics suggest that Trump isn’t the only one who can win key states, and the movement in the Upper Midwest might be more structural rather than specific to Trump.