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Midterm Elections Preview


Welcome to election season. Now, it may feel like we've been in election season for a while now, but those were primary and special elections. And with the exception of Louisiana, which marches to a different calendar, they're all now done. So let's take stock about what the primaries have revealed and look ahead to November with Domenico Montanaro. He's NPR's lead political editor. And he joins us now. Hey, Domenico.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So we talked a lot during these primaries about the enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans. Did that enthusiasm last all the way through this past week's races in New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island?

MONTANARO: Well, 100 percent you can say that Democrats have seen high levels of enthusiasm. And the way that that was measured was through primary turnout. We can also see that in a lot of polling, where liberals in particular - showing very high levels of engagement in this election. But I will say one caveat for Democrats who are feeling pretty good about going into Election Day, which is just under eight weeks away now, is that Republican enthusiasm is not as low as Democratic enthusiasm was in 2010 when they wound up taking that shellacking, as President Obama called it, or as Republican enthusiasm was in 2006 when Democrats took over the House.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I guess what you're implying there is that it's still, you know - what - the results might be up in the air come eight weeks.

MONTANARO: Look. Everybody is engaged right now. It looks like both bases of both parties are fully engaged in the fight. They want the fight. And it's all because of President Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. I want to talk about the Democrats. So they're enthusiastic. Was that enthusiasm driven by progressive candidates? Because lots of headlines were driven by progressive candidates.

MONTANARO: There's been a lot of energy on the progressive side of things. They've certainly driven the message when it comes to Democrats. But a lot of the energy, again, is because President Trump has so fired up the Democratic base. And to be honest, the thing that's fueling Democrats most are women. We've seen a record number of women running for office. We now see a record number of women nominated to the House. So for the first time, you're seeing this level of enthusiasm among women be there. And you're seeing it show up in President Trump's approval ratings. In our poll, the NPR/Marist poll, you had a 28-62 approve to disapprove rating for the president. So just 28 percent of women approving of President Trump's job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's extraordinary.

MONTANARO: It is. And he won 41 percent of women on election night. It's a major slippage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's look at Republicans now. I've traveled around the country. I've talked to Republican voters. And it seems like they all have, you know - are all backing the president. And the candidates have sort of taken on his message.

MONTANARO: They have embraced President Trump. And they've needed to because without President Trump's base, it's very difficult for them to win. But voters and especially swing voters are starting to really not show any difference between these Republican candidates and the president. For example, in our polling, we've seen that the president's approval rating is essentially mirroring the congressional ballot. And the congressional ballot is when you ask people who they would vote for - the Republican or the Democratic candidate in their district. So for good or ill, voters are not making any distinction between the Republican candidate and President Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So I'm curious then what the message has been, what you've seen. Because now that these general election races are off and running, what are all these Republican and Democratic nominees running on? Are there sort of shared party-wide messages that they repeat from state to state?

MONTANARO: No (laughter). I mean...


MONTANARO: ...I will say on the Democratic side there is. Democrats are largely running on health care and wages, wage inequality. They say - what Democrats tell me behind the scenes is that they don't feel they need to talk about President Trump because it's so on the front of people's minds, that the president will do the talking for them. They believe that the more the president talks, the more he hurts himself with independents. And they'd rather take the high road and stay focused on the issues. Health care has been, you know, nearly half of all issue ads that have run in this election. So that's a big issue on the Democratic side.

On the Republican side, they really have said that they feel that the biggest theme in this election has been volatility. In other words, they can't find a substantive issue to run on. Tax reform or tax cuts was the thing that a lot of people thought they would run on. They've tested that message. It hasn't resonated with a lot of voters. And they wind up going back to some of the similar messages that we've heard over the years - attacking Nancy Pelosi, for example, because she's so - seen as so partisan and going after, you know - talking about immigration and how - you know, trying to back up the president's message that there's something to be fearful of. And we've seen patriotism now be something that a lot of them are running on. And, really, that is a dog whistle for culture.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome as always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.