Republicans are trying to turn the midterms on their head. Instead of the expected referendum on a still relatively unpopular Republican president, Republicans are hoping to bring Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi to the forefront.
It's not a bad idea: Pelosi's favorable rating runs about 20 percentage points behind her unfavorable rating. But will the strategy work?
It's possible, but midterm elections over the last 25 years suggest that Republicans are facing an uphill battle.
Consider the final pre-election polling in each midterm since 1994. When you look at the net favorability rating (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating) of the House leader of the party in opposition to the president, there's been basically no correlation with how the House midterms turned out. When you look at the difference in the net favorability of the House leader of the party in control of the White House and the net favorability of the House leader of the opposition party, there's been basically no correlation with how the House midterms turned out.
This is despite the party in charge of the White House running against a number of unpopular House leaders of the opposition in previous elections. Democrats tried to run against Newt Gingrich in 1994 and 1998. They did the same in 2010 and 2014 against John Boehner. Their record is at best mixed, as the president's popularity has been the most important factor.
- 1994: Gingrich sported a net favorability of -8 percentage points in a CNN survey conducted in late October. That made him far less popular than Democratic House leader (and Speaker) Tom Foley, whose favorable rating was above his unfavorable rating in two surveys conducted earlier in the month. Gingrich's popularity was about on par with that of Democratic President Bill Clinton. In the end, Republicans picked up 54 House seats and control of the chamber.
- 1998: Newt Gingrich was even less popular than in 1994. His net favorability rating was -24 percentage points in the exit poll that year, and his party became one of the few opposition parties to lose House seats in a midterm election. But while it is easy to assign House Republican problems to Gingrich's unpopularity, remember that Clinton's net approval rating at the time was about +35 percentage points -- about the highest for any president going into a midterm election since World War II.
2010: Boehner was not a popular man. His net favorability rating in CNN and ABC News/Washington Post polls over the final week of the election averaged -7 percentage points. That made him about as popular as Democratic President Barack Obama. Did it matter that Boehner wasn't super popular? No. Republicans won 63 seats and control of the House. Now, perhaps Republicans were helped additionally by the unpopularity of then-Speaker Pelosi, whose net favorability rating was south of -20 percentage points, which was a significant decline from her positive ratings before the 2006 midterm, when Democrats took control of the House. But again, the common theme is that the president's popularity is driving the results.
- 2014: Like Gingrich before him, Boehner was more unpopular after a few years as speaker. An October 2014 survey conducted by GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications put Boehner's net favorability at -24 percentage points. That was about equal to Pelosi's rating of -25 percentage points. It was far below the quite unpopular Obama's net approval rating of -16 percentage points in the same survey. In the end, it was Obama's net approval rating that mattered most. Democrats lost over a dozen seats.
Now, 2018 may turn out to be different from these previous elections. A sample size of six is quite small, and Pelosi's net favorability rating remains low. But one additional factor to consider is that it's not like House Speaker Paul Ryan is all that popular, either. In a CNN survey taken late last year, Pelosi and he had very similar net favorability ratings.
Of course, at the end of the day, the most important number to watch heading into the midterms is Trump's approval rating. His net approval rating in the last CNN poll, for example, was -15 percentage points. Republicans better hope that it continues to rise -- because if it doesn't it could be a long night.