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'Trump's mood and tone on his Irish visit will be shaped by what happens the week before'

The mid-term elections in the US could become a referendum on Trump’s presidency, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

LAST WEEK, THE Taoiseach and the rest of the political establishment received some news that came “a little bit out of the blue,” as Leo Varadkar put it: Donald Trump will pay his first visit to Ireland as President of the United States.

Since this unexpected announcement, there has been much speculation about the protests, and who might take part in them, that will transpire from the moment President Trump arrives in November.

Additionally, government ministers have been pressed as to how they will greet the most controversial and recognisable political leader in the world. The message from Simon Coveney and his colleagues has been that there will be “blunt, straight” talks with a man held in low esteem by the vast majority of the population here. Nonetheless, he will be treated with respect, given the long-term, close relationship and mutually beneficial ties between Ireland and the US. Walking this delicate tightrope, though not easy, is the correct way to play it.

Before Donald Trump flies across the Atlantic, first to France and then to Ireland, mid-term elections will take place at home. 35 seats in the US Senate and all 435 in the House of Representatives will be contested, as will many state and local offices. While there have been a number of special elections since the president moved into the White House, this is the first occasion on which we will get something of a national perspective on his tenure.

Because – love him or loathe him – people here and elsewhere are absolutely fascinated by the bombastic and volatile businessman and his improbable ascent to the western world’s most powerful position, there is an unprecedented level of interest in the 2018 mid-terms. Many Irish political watchers have weighed in on the chances of the Democrats reclaiming control of the House and/or Senate.

Some are even discussing the situations in individual states or congressional districts. It is another unforeseen consequence of the electoral earthquake that shook the world in November 2016 that everyone has come to grasp how crucial US mid-term elections are.

The story of the mid-terms 

They are a curious kettle of political fish. At least in recent decades, around 40% of eligible voters have cast ballots in mid-terms. Closer to 60% of the electorate go to the polls when a presidential election is being held. One would imagine that a smaller electorate would be whiter, older, wealthier and generally more conservative. Accordingly, in theory, mid-terms should be a bonanza for Republicans every four years.

But in truth, mid-term elections have usually favoured the president’s opponents, regardless of which party he hails from. Political pundits have wondered out loud about this phenomenon for some time and political scientists have proffered numerous reasons as to why this is so.

In short, they assert that, no matter how well he has performed in carrying out his duties, his base is less interested and feels let down by an inevitable failure to keep campaign promises, while the opposition is highly motivated after having suffered a loss two years previously.

There have been two notable exceptions to the rule. In 1998, Republicans sought to make President Bill Clinton’s character the central issue in the wake of his sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. The people, however, rejected what many saw as preaching about an extra-marital affair that, albeit ill-judged and immoral, had little to do with the president’s job performance, much less of Democratic candidates or incumbents. Thus, the GOP actually lost a handful of seats.

And in 2002, when the events of 9/11 were still quite raw and fresh in the nation’s collective memory, the patriotic chord President George W Bush struck with so many Americans resulted in his party gaining eight seats in the House and two in the Senate.

Will the same happen again? 

The question now is the extent to which past might prove prologue. Most commentators opine, not too strenuously, that Democrats will narrowly retake the House, but that Republicans, in light of the dynamics of the states where Senate seats are being fought over, will hold their close majority there.

Indeed, polling data this week suggests that the Democrats have more than an 8% generic lead. If that is borne out on 6 November, they should win more than the 23 extra House seats they need and become the largest party. The Senate polling is razor thin, yet Republicans seem likely to cling to their advantage at this juncture.

But this analysis may take insufficient account of the reality that, as in 1998 and in 2002, there are other, atypical factors at work. While Donald Trump’s opponents are absolutely fired up to deliver a serious counterpunch this year, his backers show little sign of complacency or disappointment in the man they placed their trust in. There is also an economy that, judging by a litany of encouraging statistics, is booming and benefitting tens of millions of people across racial and other historic fault lines. Is there a current bubbling under the surface?

It is, of course, a cliché to say that the mid-term elections will come down to turnout. If the turnout were to climb to 45% or more, however, and if it rises to that figure because greater numbers of young people and men and women of colour turn out, then the Democrats will be well-poised to thwart their opponents’ right-wing agenda and perhaps even seek the impeachment of Donald Trump.

If not, then we could be in for a further electoral shock and a newly reinvigorated president. At any rate, his mood and tone on the planned Irish visit will be shaped to a certain degree by what happens the week before.

In anticipation of President Trump’s short stay, one suspects that most people here are hoping that the Democrats don’t again depend unduly on algorithms and related dictates emanating from a big city office building – as opposed to the tried and true tactics of politics and elections – this time around.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.  He is also co-director of this weekend’s Kennedy Summer School (www.kennedysummerschool.ie) in New Ross where he will interview prominent Republican political consultant, John Weaver, and moderate a US politics panel.

About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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