How the 2016 presidential campaign finally got away from GOP nominee Donald Trump recalls the classic Ernest Hemingway quote about bankruptcy: It happened two ways – first gradually and then suddenly.
The grim question facing Trump’s fellow Republicans as the final weeks of the campaign dwindle is whether the same description will apply to how they lost control of Congress.
As recently as September 19th, according to the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Trump was less than a percentage point behind Hillary Clinton after she had suffered through a punishing several weeks (New York magazine’s perceptive Jonathan Chait wrote that Trump was winning the month). But Trump is incapable of cooperating with political success. Somewhere between voters being reminded of his birther past, his bombing the first debate and subsequent sexist feud with a former Miss Universe, his polling deficit inched higher – and then about a week after the debate (once polls had a chance to fully absorb the performance) he started a precipitous decline.
And that was before Trump’s “just kiss … don’t even wait … grab them by the pussy” earthquake and this week’s aftershock, the parade of women who have come forward asserting that his bragging was not “just words,” as he tried to explain it away, but actually his modus operandi.
As of Thursday afternoon, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump had widened to 6.7.
Where does this leave Senate and House Republicans? The short and honest answer is that even at this late date it remains too soon to tell – but there are some warning signs for the party of Trump.
There hasn’t been enough polling, public or private, to definitively understand how much Trump’s implosion is sucking the rest of the party down with him. If he’s becoming a political black hole how far down the ballot does his event horizon – the point past which nothing can escape – reach? This question is complicated by the fact that the dust hasn’t even settled and new revelations are forthcoming.
And of course the GOP hasn’t hit upon a clear course of how to handle the Trump-losion. In the immediate aftermath of the Trump tape 40 members of the House and Senate withdrew their support of him (though some, displaying comically bad timing, un-unendorsed him). Others, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, danced the craven denounce-but-don’t-renounce two-step, expressing their abject disapproval … for the man they would put in the White House.
As I wrote earlier this week, the dilemma Ryan and other Republicans have created for themselves is having to walk a tightrope over the yawning chasm between their party’s base and swing voters – two groups necessary for political victory with sharply divergent views on the radioactive Trump. Polls show most, but not all, Republicans want GOPers to stand by their man; at the same time independents are appalled by Trump. Throw in the fact that Trump loyalists – at their candidate’s urging – are furious with Republicans who have rejected him. Rep. Joe Heck, the Nevada Republican who represents the party’s sole hope of picking up a Senate seat this year, was booed last week when he withdrew his support for Trump.
It’s a combustible series of events for a party that largely has been able to quarantine Trump politically. “Up to this point in the cycle, there hasn’t been a uniform correlation between Trump and House and Senate Republicans,” Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report wrote this week. As recently as last week House Republicans were saying that their internal polling showed all of their incumbents winning. “What we know from earlier polling is that the Trump brand is very distinct from the Republican brand,” says Whit Ayres, a respected Republican pollster and critic of his party’s nominee. “It remains to be seen if that will hold.” Democrats are generally expected to pick up seats next month and have for most of the year led the generic ballot – the question of which party voters prefer to see in charge of Congress – by somewhere between 2 and 5 percentage points. But that lead has got to be closer to 13 for Democrats to have a realistic hope of picking up the 30 seats necessary to regain control of the House. Another way of reckoning it is that Clinton would have to win by 10 percentage points to put the House in play.
If Clinton wins, Democrats would need a net four seat gain to recapture the Senate and while they are on offense virtually across the board – The Cook Political Report rates 11 Senate seats as either “lean” or “toss-up” and 10 of them are currently Republican – control is still very much an open question. The Huffington Post’s forecast model, for example, gives Republicans a 66 percent chance of retaining control while FiveThirtyEight’s gives Democrats a 56 percent chance. The Democratic polling group Democracy Corps noted Thursday that Republican Senate candidates in key states had been running 7 percentage points ahead of Trump but that his “determination to publicly admonish Republicans withdrawing support” from him after the tape “snapped the tightrope those candidates walked.”
Indeed the shocking and visceral nature of Trump’s blossoming scandals, his determination to take as much of the political system down with him as he can and the resultant GOP civil war raises questions about how viable the wall between him and his party will be in the coming weeks. Do presidential-year Republicans, uninspired to vote by a repellent presidential candidate, stay home? Do irate Trumpkins punish House and Senate candidates for insufficient fidelity to their dear leader? Do swing voters punish them for being too close to him? Even a little from each column could doom marginal incumbents and push otherwise safe states and districts into play.
What little data has emerged thus far has had some foreboding notes for Republicans. The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave Democrats a 6 percentage-point advantage in the generic ballot; that’s the highest the Democrats’ margin has been in that survey since the 2013 government shutdown. A Reuters/Ipsos poll gave Democrats a 10 percentage-point advantage, up from 4 points at the turn of the month and a 1-point GOP edge in mid-September. Indeed, Rep. Greg Walden, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told his colleagues Monday that the NBC/Wall Street Journal numbers track the party’s internal polling data.
“There is evidence now – not definitive, we won’t know if it lingers – that the race is starting to structurally change in a way that will imperil the Republican House and Republican Senate,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN.
There is an ebb and flow in campaigns. The question facing Republicans is not simply how much Trump drains them now but to what extent they are able to recover in the coming weeks (especially since voting has already started in many states and more than 500,000 votes have already been cast).
Here’s what to watch going forward: More fulsome poll numbers will start to be released and/or leak out in the coming days. More telling will be the tenor of candidate statements and television advertising. “Several Senate candidates are preparing ads asking voters to elect them as a check on Mrs. Clinton in the White House,” The New York Times’ Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin reported this week.
The electoral calendar is getting short and the party has plunged into an unprecedented pre-election civil war. What are now eddies may yet coalesce into a late-breaking wave.
How does a party lose control of Congress? Gradually – then suddenly.
Source: U.S News