The Topline: Border Wall Shutdown Shows Cracks in Trump's Base

“If we don’t get what we want … I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”

That, of course, was President Donald Trump in an unexpectedly televised Oval Office confrontation with now House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. No one but Donald Trump knows for certain why he grabbed credit for shutting down the government. But if he thought the issue would be a political winner for him, the polls suggest the opposite. As the shutdown enters its 28th day, voters, including key segments of Trump’s base, see the shutdown as a serious issue, and more blame him over Congressional Democrats for the shutdown.

The impacts of the shutdown are showing up in Trump’s approval rating, which has endured months and months of endless investigations and blaring headlines with barely a blip. Since the shutdown began, Trump’s approval has been on a steady downward trend, with the FiveThirtyEight average dipping below 40 percent for the first time in almost a year.

It’s not just his political opponents who are souring on the President’s approach. Multiple polls over the past few weeks have shown serious cracks in groups who have traditionally made up President Trump’s political base. An NPR poll released yesterday showed Trump’s net approval among Republicans has slipped 10 points, echoing declines among other key groups (see graphic).

NPR Trump base.JPG

Among white men without a college degree, a CNN poll found 45 percent approve of President Trump, a 9-point dip from a similar poll conducted in early December before the shutdown began. Quinnipiac found a similar 9-point net loss in favorability among white non-college voters since mid-December.

Much of the battle over the wall itself seems to be a public one. In an interview with The Horse Race this week, Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus Katherine Clark demurred on whether progress is happening.  Asked about behind the scenes negotiations, she focused instead on the public messaging battle. “We are trying to highlight what we are hearing from our constituents to hopefully convince the Senate and the President that the federal workers and their families shouldn’t be held hostage to one pet project of this President.”

This is not an encouraging sign in terms of forecasting the end of what is already the longest government shutdown in US history. But it does illustrate the very different approaches the two sides are taking, with Trump focusing on the need for the wall, and the Democrats focusing more on the impact of the shutdown rather than arguing against the wall.

Trump has taken on most of the burden of messaging on the Republican side. The new House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is unknown to voters, with 72 percent saying they have never heard of him. And Mitch McConnell has all but disappeared from view. But Trump’s sales pitch seems not to be working. His primetime television address last week to sell the wall convinced almost nobody. Only 2 percent of American voters said the speech from the Oval Office changed their mind, a rounding error in poll analysis.  

Voters are getting worried. Pew Research Center found 58 percent overall think the shutdown is a “very serious” problem for the country. But even here there are deep partisan divides: 79 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents think it is “very” serious, compared to only 35 percent across the aisle. That asymmetry could prove problematic for House Democrats. Highlighting the pain of the shutdown may weaken the resolve of their base, who care more about the damage being done, than the supporters of Republicans, who seem less concerned.

As of right now, though, both sides appear to be dug in. Pew also found that 88 percent of opponents of a border wall would consider a solution that included wall funding unacceptable. On the other hand, 72 percent of wall supporters would reject a solution that did not include wall funding. As verbal salvos have escalated from cancelling speeches to Congress to overseas trips, there is no solution in sight.

With Trump’s political and legal problems piling up by the minute, he and Republicans in Congress need their voters to stick with them. But polls suggest the more Trump tightens his grip on the shutdown, the more his base voters are slipping through his fingers.

by Maeve Duggan, Steve Koczela, and Rich Parr

Thumbnail photo: © Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0


Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA5) joined The Horse Race this week to discuss the longest government shutdown in history and her plan to mitigate its damage. POLITICO reporter Stephanie Murray discussed Elizabeth Warren’s recent trip to New Hampshire and how she stacks up against the rest of a rapidly-growing field of presidential primary candidates.

Did you miss our live event? Catch up on a very special episode ringing in the new year and a new session of the state legislature. Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka, State Representative Russell Holmes, and Boston Globe reporter Victoria McGrane spell out what’s in store for 2019.

Over at CNN, Steve Koczela outlines why “likability” has never been Elizabeth Warren’s calling card in prior elections. Rather, “she has risen more on her reputation as a reliable ally of everyday voters rather than someone voters would invite to the proverbial backyard barbecue.”

Writing for WBUR, Maeve Duggan takes a look at first-time voters in MA-07. She finds that 24 percent of primary voters had not voted in any of the five previous primaries, and they are largely defined by their youth - 66 percent were 44 or younger.