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Republicans, Democrats veer toward extremes as midterms approach

U.S. President Donald Trump points his finger during a press conference after a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

When President Donald Trump claimed he had simply misspoken when he questioned the intelligence community’s work during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week, Democrats laughed it off as a feeble excuse, but many Republicans who had initially been critical of Trump accepted the clarification without question. Several new polls may help explain why.

The rift between Republicans and Democrats in their perceptions of reality continues to grow as the GOP firmly embraces Trump’s worldview and the left hardens its resistance. Public opinion of Trump’s meeting with Putin provides perhaps the starkest current illustration of the phenomenon.

According to a CBS News poll conducted this week, 32 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s handling of the Helsinki summit with Putin, but among Republicans, 68 percent approved. Compared to 55 percent of Americans overall who disapproved, only 21 percent of Republicans did.

A significant gulf appeared in the CBS poll between those who believe the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was responsible for interference in the 2016 election. Seven in ten Americans agree with that finding, including 67 percent of independents, but only half of Republicans do.

Trump acknowledged Russian responsibility Tuesday, though he added other countries may also have been involved. The White House maintains that he has consistently endorsed the intelligence community’s conclusion, but his statements of support have often included such caveats and he continued to openly question Russia’s involvement even before Helsinki.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll also conducted after the summit produced similar results. In that survey, 59 percent of registered voters agreed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but only 32 percent of Republicans did. Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to approve of Trump’s handling of policy toward Russia and Democrats were more than twice as likely to view Russia as an imminent threat.

In a HuffPost/YouGov poll released Thursday, 40 percent of respondents approved of Trump’s meeting with Putin, including 83 percent of Trump voters and only 9 percent of Clinton voters. About 35 percent of Americans disapproved, and the remaining 25 percent were unsure. The poll also indicated more than 40 percent of Americans paid little or no attention to the summit.

Experts are unsurprised to see the majority of the GOP lining up behind President Trump, even when his positions veer further from the center.

“We saw that with Obama,” said Spencer Kimball, a political consultant who teaches at Emerson College and author of “Survey Says?: A Practitioners Guide to Public Opinion Polling.” “Democrats had a much more positive attitude towards him. That type of self-selection bias traditionally exists. What’s a little different here is just the magnitude of that difference.”

As partisans turn more toward news outlets that conform to their views, the magnitude of that divide is likely to grow.

“I think the polarization between the two parties is unfortunately a fact of political life in 21st century America, and it’s reflected in the sources of info people are getting about both the Mueller probe and the meeting with President Putin, and then shows up in the attitudes that those siloed Americans exhibit,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University.

As has been proven time and again by the heated reactions on both sides to Trump controversies, those filters have become very difficult to penetrate.

“When you look at the track record of all of Trump’s statements, there’s definitely a rally effect around Trump. Republican voters in general see Trump as their guy,” said Michael Cohen, founder of the Cohen Research Group and acting director of the political management program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

Trump often boasts about his popularity with Republicans, and his approval within the GOP is pushing 90 percent in some polls. Capri Cafaro, a former Ohio Democratic state senator, observed Trump’s increasingly firm grasp of the Republican Party comes in part from a shift in who considers themselves to be Republican voters.

“2016 Republicans, people that cast a Republican ballot for Donald Trump, are different from a traditional Republicans who voted for anyone from John Kasich to John McCain,” said Cafaro, now executive-in-residence at the American University School of Public Affairs.

While polling places independents more in sync with Democrats on Trump and Russia, they also risk alienating moderates as momentum grows within the party for dramatic policies like eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The proposition is just beginning to pick up steam on the left, but initial polling suggests it is not a winning issue, even among Democratic voters.

According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 25 percent of voters approve of abolishing ICE. More than half support preserving the agency, including 74 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of independents.

A plurality of Democrats, 43 percent, say ICE should be eliminated, and 40 percent of the party’s voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who wants to get rid of it. That still leaves more than half of the party either opposed or unmoved by the issue.

Abolishing ICE remains a minority position within the Democratic Party, with most in leadership so far rejecting it. However, several prominent senators have backed the idea, including some potential contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination.

The prospect of shuttering ICE entered national debate in recent weeks amid outrage over the federal government’s handling of families separated when taken into custody at the U.S.-Mexico border and a surprise primary victory by self-avowed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York.

Republicans have already seized upon the anti-ICE effort to cast Democrats as extremists. A video released by House Republicans earlier this week spotlighted Ocasio-Cortez and warned if Democrats they retake the majority, they would “abolish border security, repeal tax cuts, and weaken our military.”

Assuming the typical dynamics of midterm elections are still in effect, appealing the base at the expense of the middle could be a winning strategy for either side.

“That’s the really big question,” Cohen said. “We haven’t seen a presidency this divisive in a long, long time. It’s questionable as to whether the people in the middle will turn out at all.”

Cafaro wonders the same thing: with politics racing at the speed of Trump, will independent voters who rarely turnout for midterms to begin with be too exhausted to head to the polls?

“I’m not sure how overall fatigue is going to impact this election,” she said. “There’s so much noise on all sides… Can you target independents or are they going to turn out at all because they’re so frustrated with the constant barrage of confusion and negativity coming from all sides?”

Lawmakers and party leaders in some states are already working to break traditional turnout patterns and overcome that apathy, placing measures on state and local ballots like marijuana legalization that could attract younger and independent voters.

“Will the base on the left come out if some of the policies are not as progressive as they would have liked? Will the base on the right come out in opposition to these policies?” Kimball said.

Altschuler stressed that national polls are not especially instructive in this environment where control of Congress is going to be decided in a few dozen swing districts, many of which are currently held by Republicans. Democratic candidates in those districts will need to calibrate their stances accordingly, and they will be far less likely to grasp for the progressive positions that play well in Brooklyn.

“I would be very surprised if the Democratic challengers in those districts did not stake out positions that tend to be politically moderate positions,” he said. “Those candidates may even seize opportunities to advance positions that may be different from the positions of office holders on the left. That isn’t necessarily a handicap for them.”

Cafaro pointed to a vote in the House Wednesday on a resolution affirming support for ICE, which few Democrats voted for, as an example of the challenge lawmakers face if they want to avoid being typecast as open-borders-loving liberal elitists.

“Democrats really need to focus on running individualized campaigns that are best reflective of the values of their districts rather than running a 425-seat national campaign,” she said.

Shoveling red meat to the party’s most fervent followers may help Republicans keep Congress in November 2018, but if Trump’s base continues to intensify and isolate itself ideologically, he could face a steep climb to reelection in 2020. His approval rating continues to hover in the low 40s, currently averaging 43.3 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.

“A president who is presiding over a robust economy with a 4 percent unemployment rate and who is underwater significantly in his approval ratings has really got to expand his base for 2018 and beyond…. These are stunningly low numbers, given this economy,” Altschuler said. “Stunningly low.”

Kimball noted that Trump won the 2016 election by a slim margin, and he carried only 43 percent of the popular vote. If his base shrinks, that victory may be difficult to replicate, particularly if he faces a primary challenge or an independent run by a disaffected former establishment Republican.

“If there is a third party [candidate], could that just shave off enough of the Trump vote to cost him the election?” Kimball asked.

The parties’ strategies for 2020 will depend heavily on how 2018 ends. If Democrats retake Congress, Republicans may rethink their embrace of Trump. If the fabled great blue wave never materializes, progressives will face difficult questions of their own.

“Nothing teaches politicians like losing,” Cohen said. “They don’t learn much from winning, but they learn a lot from losing.”

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