Voter interest in the midterm elections stands at a historic high with a singular focus — Trump

President Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of Congress and Cabinet members at the White House on Wednesday.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

With about 4 1/2 months to go until a midterm election that will determine whether Democrats gain power to check President Trump, voter interest in the contest has reached historic highs, with far more intense focus than usual on one subject: the president.

Midterm elections often act as a referendum on whoever occupies the White House, but in most election years, many voters don’t view their ballot that way. This year, they do: Some 60% say they view their midterm vote as a ballot essentially against (34%) or for (26%) Trump, according to a newly released survey from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. That makes Trump a bigger factor in the midterm than any president since Pew first asked the question during President Reagan’s first term.

The new survey highlights how much the national, partisan contest now outweighs local issues in voters’ choice for Congress: Nearly three-quarters of voters on both sides of the partisan divide said they cared which party will end up controlling Congress — a significantly larger share than in previous elections.


The poll also pointed to a key group for Democratic hopes: younger women. Nearly 7 in 10 women younger than 35 said they favored a Democrat for Congress, and 4 in 10 said they saw their vote as one against Trump. Only about 1 in 10 said they thought of their vote as a ballot for Trump.

Overall, Democrats continue to hold an edge over Republicans in the fight for Congress, both in enthusiasm and voter preference, but the advantage remains small enough that the outcome, especially for the House, remains uncertain.

When asked which party’s candidate for Congress they supported or leaned toward this year, voters surveyed by Pew sided with the Democrats by five percentage points, 48%-43%.

Good economic news has buoyed Republicans, with voters giving the GOP an edge on managing the economy after several years in which neither party had an advantage on that topic.

On most other issues, including the two that voters most often said they want candidates to talk about — healthcare and immigration — a majority preferred Democrats.


The poll was conducted June 5-12, so it pre-dated the current controversy over the Trump administration’s splitting up of families of immigrants caught trying to cross the border illegally. Even so, immigration was the top issue that the public cited when asked to name the most important problem facing the country. It was mentioned by 12%. Race relations and racism came in second, cited by 8%. Only 6% named the economy — a sharp contrast from only a few years ago.

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The overall five-percentage point Democratic lead in the survey is consistent with other recent polls that have found, on average, that Democrats have an advantage of about seven percentage points on the so-called generic ballot. That’s around the level that, if history holds, would indicate a small Democratic edge in the battle for control of the House.

The generic ballot question typically has provided a fairly accurate election forecast. Democrats generally need a significant majority in the total vote nationwide in order to win a majority of the House — in part because of gerrymanders that favor Republicans and in part because Democratic voters, concentrated in cities, dominate fewer geographic districts.

The contest highlights a now-familiar divide along lines of race and education.

Republicans have a strong lead on the generic ballot, 57%-34%, among white voters who did not graduate from college. Democrats have a smaller edge, 53%-41%, among whites who have a college degree. They have large margins among Latino (63%-30%) and African American (77%-16%) voters. Democrats also have a strong lead (57%-37%) among voters younger than 35; voters 35 and older split closely between the two parties.

Republicans have a small advantage, 49%-43%, among men, which is fairly consistent regardless of age. While women younger than 35 favor the Democrats by a large margin, among women 35 and older, the Democrats have an advantage, but a much smaller one.

The strong Democratic edge among younger women could prove a major advantage for the party, but it also highlights a risk — those voters have a spotty record of turning out to cast ballots, especially in non-presidential years.

That Democratic edge among younger women corresponds with their belief that Trump does not respect them.

Fewer than a third of younger women said that Trump respects women, with only 10% saying he has a “great deal” of respect for them. Among women 50 and older, about half said Trump respects women at least “a fair amount.” Men of all age groups are more likely to say that Trump respects women.

Both genders agreed by large majorities that Trump respects men. Americans also agreed by large majorities that Trump respects white people, evangelical Christians and veterans, but most Americans said that he does not respect blacks, Latinos, Muslims or immigrants.

Overall, 46% of Americans said they believe Trump respects people like them, while 52% said he did not. Eight in 10 African Americans, two-thirds of Latinos and 62% of women younger than 35 said Trump did not respect people like them.

In special elections over the past year, Democratic turnout has exceeded its usual level, and the poll finds some evidence that could continue into the November election. Among people who said they favored a Democrat for Congress, 55% said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting. That’s a much higher level than at similar points before the 2010 and 2014 midterms, both of which saw big losses for the Democrats. Liberal Democrats reported an especially high level of enthusiasm, with 64% saying they were more enthusiastic than normal.

Democratic enthusiasm is even higher than it was in 2006, when the party won a majority of the House. Unlike that election, however, in which many Republicans turned against President George W. Bush, Republicans this year also express considerable enthusiasm for voting — roughly on the level of the last two midterms contests.

Among Democrats and independents who lean to the Democrats, 61% said their vote was a ballot against Trump. That’s even higher than the share of Republicans who said in the 2010 midterm that their ballot was against President Obama.

Part of what makes this election hard to predict, however, is that Trump generates almost equally strong feelings of support on his side. Just over half, 52%, of Republicans and independents who lean their way said they saw their midterm ballot as a vote in favor of Trump. That’s significantly higher than the share of Democrats who said they were casting a pro-Obama ballot in the last two midterms and much higher than the share of Republicans, 33%, who said they were casting a pro-Bush ballot in 2006.

Despite the attention given to prominent Republicans who have criticized Trump, they represent a small segment of the party.

Almost half, 46%, of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump has changed the GOP for the better. Only 10% say he has changed it for the worse, with the rest, 40%, saying they don’t think he has changed it much at all. Among self-identified conservative Republicans, 52% say Trump has changed the party for the better.

The Pew survey was conducted by telephone, including cellphones and land lines, among a national sample of 2,002 adults, including 1,608 registered voters. The margin of error is 2.6 percentage points in either direction for the full sample; 2.9 percentage points for the registered voters.

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