WASHINGTON — Democrats have enjoyed a string of wins in special elections. They’re seeing surges of voting in primary elections. They’re disgusted by President Trump and appear ready to send him a harsh message in November’s midterm elections.
But the party has a history of reading tea leaves inaccurately and blowing elections that they think they can’t lose.
That’s left some Democratic leaders with a nagging concern: Is there a danger that their supporters might just get exhausted by the constant drumbeat of chaotic news from Washington? Are they tuning out politics? And — the nightmare question — would that prevent them from voting?
“There are a lot of people who are tired of talking about and tired of hearing about Donald Trump nonstop,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster whose clients have included former Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “I do find people saying they’re more likely to avoid discussion of politics than they were in the past.”
There have been nationwide protests on a slew of topics: marches to oppose Trump’s inauguration and to support women’s rights, marches to oppose the Muslim ban, marches to support gun control amid a spate of mass killings, and marches to oppose Trump’s now recanted policy of separating immigrant families arriving at the southern border. It’s a lot of outrage and an awful lot of protesting.
But while party activists — the types who participate in primary campaigns — may be energized, the worry is that the rank-and-file and average voters who may decide a general election could be exhausted.
Party leaders who have begun to dig into the phenomena of voter fatigue have found that Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to tell pollsters they’re “exhausted” by Trump’s antics and policies. And Democrats are also less likely than their GOP counterparts to be “engaged” and “interested in taking action,” according to a recent survey done by Navigator Research.
Voters on the left report that they’re particularly exhausted by Trump’s use of Twitter, the news of White House palace intrigue, and, surprisingly, the debate over professional football players protesting the national anthem, according to the poll.
Some Republicans are also worn out by these story lines, but GOP voters are more likely than Democrats to find these topics exciting to hear about, the survey showed.
Democratic strategists say that the anti-Trump fervor makes it more important for candidates to talk about ideas that are separate from Trump.
“It’s not a profile in courage to slam Trump, because everyone is there,” said Alex Goldstein, whose consulting company, 90 West, is working on several Democratic primary elections in New England. “Everyone is rightfully outraged. So OK, you’re outraged at the president, but what is your solution?”
Pollsters typically contend with voter exhaustion only in scenarios where there have been a series of local or state elections in a row, and voters are just tired of casting ballots, according to several top strategists.
So party leaders aren’t entirely sure what to make of this new manifestation of voter exhaustion, or what impact it could have over the next few months.
“It’s something we want to be thoughtful and aware of as we talk to Democratic voters,” said Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the Navigator poll.
“It means there is so much news — there is so much news that sounds very worrying and very troubling,” Omero said. “And it is overwhelming to hear about it.”
In a report accompanying her research, Omero warned that there’s a “delicate balance” between motivating the Democratic base to be active in November and just wearing them down with an overwhelming amount of anti-Trump information.
Democrats become more energized and less exhausted by issues they feel they can directly affect, the research found. High on this list are the gun control debate, which has been fueled in recent months by a spate of mass shootings; news about how the Trump administration is treating immigrants; and the health care debate, on which Democrats were able to successfully push back a GOP attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Omero and others said they don’t believe Democrats will sit out the election, but she said the research can guide candidates about which topics to talk about with voters and which ones to avoid.
Democrats are hoping the upcoming fight over a Supreme Court nominee will be a way to push the national debate toward the issues that keep their voters engaged.
But they need to find voters who are willing to talk politics, which isn’t an easy feat.
They need to find a way to inspire voters like Tracy Ware, a 47-year-old who was shopping at a Wegman’s on a recent weekday in Leesburg, Va., home of one of the most competitive congressional races in the country. Ware is a Republican, but she says she can’t stand Trump — and could be open to voting against Republican incumbent Representative Barbara Comstock.
“I’m worn out already,” Ware said.
Others pointed out that talking about politics has become impossible.
“You can’t have a conversation,” said Mike O’Hara, 52, who described himself as a moderate Democrat.
He’s exactly the kind of voter that Democrats, who typically have less luck turning out their voters in midterm elections, are hoping will be mad enough at Trump and come out to vote.
But O’Hara said he hasn’t begun seriously thinking about who he would vote for in the midterm elections — but when asked if he would cast a Democratic vote as a way of stopping Trump, he sounded intrigued. “I might, now that I think about it,” he said.
Every voter interviewed on a recent afternoon said he or she was tired of discussing Trump.
“I’m so sick of him,” said Tammy Tayman, 57, of Fairfax, Va. “Is it over yet?”
She said that she also disliked George W. Bush, but before that, her feeling toward most presidents was, as she put it: “meh.”
She said she definitely plans to vote in November. But between now and then, she is going to tune out the news — and the endless stories about Trump — as best she can.
This strategy does present a conundrum: How will she figure out who to support in the midterm elections if she’s not listening to any news?
Many voters are in this position, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and president of Lake Research Partners. She said voters will instead rely on information they find online or, more importantly, glean from friends and family. That works for Democrats, she said, “as long as someone in the family is still watching the news.”
Lake said the last time she recalled such disgust from Democrats was during the first two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration. “It’s the closest I remember,” said Lake, “mainly in the sense of the relentless agenda.”
The Republican Party lost more than two dozen House seats in 1982, Reagan’s first midterm election, and cemented a Democratic majority in that chamber.
But the Republican president learned something from the contest and changed his tune. “They came back with a much less chaotic and aggressive style,” Lake said.
And after that, Republicans went on to hold the White House for the next decade.Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.