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Commentary: Why nobody knows how Trump will play in November

To Trump or not to Trump? That is the question vexing Republicans and--somewhat surprisingly--Democrats as the 2018 midterms approach.

Why surprising? Because 2018 is supposed to be a layup for the Democratic Party: It's a midterm under a one-party government (always good news for the party out of power);  Democrats have been racking up special-election wins in red states (really good news);  And assuming Bob Mueller doesn't do anything drastic before November, the number one Republican on Election Day will be Donald J. Trump.

Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.

All Democrats have to do is beat the anti-Trump drum and wait for its energized base to cast their ballots. At least, that was the script. But now the political scenery is shifting, and Democrats are starting to notice, calling on their fellow party members to talk more about policy and less about President Trump.

"I wouldn't be talking about Trump almost at all," Florida Democratic strategist Bob Doyle said recently. "I'd run against Washington generically, arguing that politicians in Washington in both parties have let us down."

Across the aisle, they're flipping the script on Trump as well. At the Wisconsin GOP's state convention this weekend, soon-to-be-former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that in places like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania "the president is strong."

"Whether I'm running around southern Wisconsin or America, nobody is talking about Stormy Daniels. Nobody is talking about Russia," Ryan told reporters Saturday. "They're talking about jobs, they're talking about the economy, they're talking about national security."

"He's an asset," Ryan said of the president.

That's a very different message from just a few months ago when Speaker Ryan and other Republican leaders were using the "all politics is local" line—a not-to-subtle suggestion to GOP candidates that they try to keep the conversation away from President Trump.  Every conversation about the midterms involved phrases like "blue wave" and "bloodbath," with a clear implication that, if this wasn't a direct result of Trump's unpopularity, he certainly wasn't helping.

Today, the mood is very different. "Just Tank Trump" is looking less promising as a Democratic campaign platform, and Republicans—like Pennsylvania Republican Lou Barletta, the likely GOP nominee against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey—are more open to embracing Trump. Following up on an add touting his closeness to Trump, Barletta's campaign stated running a Trump robocall to voters on Monday, just weeks after a big Democratic upset win in deep-red western Pennsylvania. At the time, Democrat Conor Lamb's victory was touted as a sign of Trump's damage to the GOP and his weakening support in the heartland.

What's changed? Well, President Trump's poll numbers for one thing. His RealClearPolitics approval-rate average has gone from 37 percent (and 20 points underwater) to around 44 percent. But the shift appears to be more broad than just some good numbers for the White House.

The "generic ballot" numbers are moving the Republicans' way, too. Back in February a CNN poll reported an eye-popping 19-percent Democratic advantage. Their new poll has that down to 3 percent. And in a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, the two parties are essentially tied.

The RCP generic-ballot average still has a 6-point lead for Democrats but no doubt it's shrinking. Which explains why we're starting to see headlines like "Reality Check: Anti-Trump Midterm Wave Could Be More Of A Ripple" (Axios) and "Is The 2018 Democratic Wave Receding?" (New York Magazine).

And once again, why? 

Salena Zito, author of the new book "The Great Revolt: Inside The Populist Coalition," thinks the answer is obvious: The economy.

"Look at some of the things that he's given back to them, at least from their point of view. Look at the tax reform bill. A lot of people in Washington say, 'it's just crumbs,'" Zito said on CBS's Face The Nation on Sunday. "But for people outside of the beltway, an extra hundred bucks in your paycheck every two weeks, that pays for stuff."

With unemployment below four percent, significant job growth in the blue-collar sector, the stock market still humming and home values on the rise, why wouldn't President Trump and his party be trending up? And now Democrats face the dilemma of running—not against Trump--but against the Trump economy. Nancy Pelosi can try to nuance it, but promising to get rid of the GOP tax cuts means running for office on raising taxes.

"Every time [Democrats] deny the economy is starting to turn or get better for certain parts of the population, they also hurt themselves," Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told RealClearPolitics. "They appear to be cheering on bad news."

And then there's foreign policy, where Trump's progress on North Korea, support for Israel and tough approach on Iran put his presidency in a positive light and force Democrats to defend the problematic record of the Obama years. Do Democrats really want to run against peace talks with Pyongyang and a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem?

What's left is Trump, the man. The Democratic base hates Trump with the heat of a thousand late-night talk show hosts, and Salena Zito acknowledges that even his supporters "don't always like his comportment. They don't always like the way he says things."  And Trump still has the Mueller/Russia/Stormy Daniels saga hanging over his presidency. Russiagate could fizzle out, or it could force a sitting president out of office. At this point it's anybody's guess.

This is the problematic climate candidates from both parties have to navigate in 2018. Republicans who embrace Trump could wake up one morning to find he's radioactive with swing voters once again. Democrats who pledge impeachment may find that suburban voters are more interested in their pocketbooks than partisan warfare.

That means the 2018 midterms could turn out to be that most surprising of things in the Trump era: Normal.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.