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Stump of Approval

Part 5 in a series

President Obama is back on the campaign trail stumping for Democrats as they push to retake the majority in Congress. He’s headlined events in California and Ohio, subtly jabbing President Trump by telling voters that the Democratic Party is responsible for the economic boom many in America are feeling. Meanwhile, Trump is also campaigning around the country for Republican candidates, warning his voters that his agenda -- i.e., the healthy economy -- could be in jeopardy if they do not return to the polls this November.

Although the two First Surrogates are extremely different in demeanor, they share the goal of energizing their respective parties’ activist base. But here’s the big question: Does the buzz they create result in a net gain for the candidates they are promoting, or do they energize the opposition as well?

“They are mirror images of each other,” said pollster Frank Luntz. “They both motivate their base to vote, and they both trigger passionate opposition among their opponents.”

Obama’s track record in transferring his own popularity to his party at large was singularly poor during his eight years in the White House. But while acknowledging the fact that Obama has in the past motivated opposition voters, Democrats say that the passage of time and the pathologies of the Trump era have lessened that fever.

“There was definitely an anti-Obama reaction among Republicans, but it’s nothing like antipathy that Democrats have for Trump,” said Democratic strategist Celinda Lake. “So, mobilization from the other side is much, much more intense.”

She added that Obama is more useful to Democrats today because he’s more popular in moderate states and districts than Trump, who tends to stay in deep-red areas. Obama can appeal to suburban districts and female voters in ways that Trump’s polarizing political status does not allow, Lake said, and even with his two terms behind him, Obama carries less political baggage than the man who succeeded him. “Americans have notorious short-term memories,” she said. “This [current] president is so chaotic and alienating and so extreme.”

Democratic National Committee officials say that Trump’s ability to motivate Democrats is already self-evident. Pointing to events ranging from the Women’s March and gun rights demonstrations to a surge in support for environmental causes, DNC spokeswoman Sabrina Singh noted that anti-Trump sentiment has been an accelerant for activist movements already in high gear. “Voters are politically engaged across the country – you only need to look at turnout in Democratic primaries to see proof of that – and have become involved in local and national races in response to this administration's disastrous policies and the actions of Republicans in Congress,” she said.

Although Republicans are split when assessing Trump’s role in the midterm races, they agree that Obama’s reemergence on the trail will underscore to grassroots conservatives why the GOP currently holds the majority in Congress. “Obama hitting the campaign trail is a reminder for every Republican voter why it's so important to vote in midterms,” said Alex Conant, a partner at Firehouse Strategies. He also acknowledged that anti-Trump sentiment may counteract that: “If this election is a referendum on Trump, the Democrats may have an enthusiasm advantage. But if it's a choice between Trump and a return to Obama, Republicans will be in good shape.”

Like their DNC counterparts, Republican National Committee officials also say they’re happy to see the 44th president head of the other party back in national politics.

“If President Obama wants to help energize Republicans in this election too, we’re happy to have him,” said Cassie Smedile, RNC press secretary. It’s an article of faith with the GOP that the former president was a huge asset to Republicans between 2010 and 2016 when Democrats lost over 1,000 seats in state legislatures, numerous governorships, and control of the House and Senate. Many Democratic candidates feared campaigning with him, lest they be tainted by the then-unpopular Obamacare. Even House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said at one point that congressional candidates are “the best salespersons for their own districts.”

"The RNC is working closely with the Trump campaign and our sister committees to get the president in front of as many voters as possible."

Cassie Smedile, RNC press secretary

As for Trump’s role in motivating his voters, the president’s re-election team says that he is “the greatest campaigner in history -- in either party.” This claim is dutifully echoed by RNC officials, who insist that Trump is nothing but an asset. “There is no one better at turning out supporters than President Trump, and he is playing a key role in our get-out-the-vote efforts this year,” said Smedile. “The RNC is working closely with the Trump campaign and our sister committees to get the president in front of as many voters as possible.”

Trump committed to being on the trail 40 days between the end of August and Election Day. So far, he’s hit several states where his support remains strong, such as West Virginia and North Dakota. He’s returned to both areas more than once during his tenure in office and recently hosted a rally for Kevin Cramer, the Republican challenging Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Cramer’s aides said the president generated massive turnout and drew national media attention to the race.

“How has Trump best helped us? By helping us articulate the differences in the voting records between Rep. Cramer and Sen. Heitkamp,” said Tim Rasmussen, communications director for the campaign. “President Trump is quick to make that distinction at every opportunity.  And when he speaks or tweets he gets a lot of attention!”

Yet a healthy suspicion exists in the White House that Barack Obama might be having the same effect among his voters. Last Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders held a rare press briefing after the former president visited Illinois California -- where he credited himself for the robust U.S. economy. Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett provided slides showing reporters how much of the uptick has happened only since the 2016 election – and is not merely a continuation of previous trends.

“I think that if anyone were to assert that the capital spending boom that we’re seeing right now was a continuation of the trend that President Trump inherited, then, well, you know, they wouldn’t get a high grade in graduate school for that assertion,” Hassett said.

Maybe, maybe not. But you wouldn’t need a PhD in political science to notice that the hurriedly announced press briefing took place less than 48 hours after Obama held a rally for Democrats in Anaheim, the most populous city in Orange County, a once-reliable GOP fortress where Democrats hope to put four or five Republican congressional districts in their column come  Nov. 6.

Sally Persons is RealClearPolitics' White House correspondent.

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