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Down-ballot Republicans are finally dumping Donald Trump. The question now is whether divorcing the Donald will help them win in November — or doom them at the ballot box.
In an election as crazy and unpredictable as this one, either outcome is possible.
The exodus began in earnest last weekend after a leaked “Access Hollywood” video showed Trump bragging that he can “grab” women “by the p****” simply because he’s “a star.”
“I thought about years from now when my daughter, Kate, is old enough to know what is in those tapes and understand what he is talking about,” embattled New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte told reporters. (Ayotte previously tried to have it both ways on Trump by saying she would vote for him but not endorse him, and it’s worth noting that none of his previous remarks about Muslims, Mexicans or other groups provoked such a definitive rebuke — perhaps because, unlike women, Muslims, Mexicans and other groups make up far less than 51 percent of the New Hampshire electorate). “I want her to know where I stood. I want my daughter to know that that is more important to me than winning any election.”
Ayotte went on to say that she would write in the name of Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, on Election Day.
But then House Speaker Paul Ryan — easily the party’s most influential voice — spoke up. Fresh off disinviting Trump from a Saturday rally in his small-town Wisconsin district, Ryan, who has repeatedly tussled with Trump despite technically supporting his candidacy, spent Monday morning on an hourlong conference call with his fellow House Republicans.
His message? “That he would never again campaign for Mr. Trump and would dedicate himself instead to defending the party’s majority in Congress,” according to the New York Times.
“Effectively conceding defeat for his party in the presidential race,” the Times continued, “Mr. Ryan said his most urgent task was ensuring that Hillary Clinton did not take the helm with Democratic control of the House and Senate.”
“Nothing has changed with regard to our relationship,” Priebus added.
Even so, Ryan’s repudiation will likely carry more weight with down-ballot Republicans than Priebus’ recommitment. Every candidate wants to win — even if it means disavowing the party’s presidential nominee. Ryan just gave the rest of the Republican roster permission to do just that. As a result, the remainder of the down-ballot campaign will probably devolve into an every-man-for-himself free-for-all, with individual Republicans weighing the conditions in their own states or districts when deciding how best to handle Trump.
Will it work? Can the party preserve its majorities in the House and Senate with a patchwork approach to its own standard-bearer? Or will Democrats capitalize on Trump’s downfall to take back control of Congress?
It’s hard to say. America has never seen anything quite like this before.
The closest we came was in 1996, when the GOP was stuck with a presidential nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who clearly wasn’t going to be the next president. In July of that year, according to a Gallup Poll, Dole trailed incumbent Commander in Chief Bill Clinton 39 percent to 57 percent — a hopeless 18-point deficit. Exactly one month later, nothing had changed. By the beginning of October, Clinton’s lead had ballooned to 22 points. On Nov. 5, Clinton wound up clobbering Dole by 220 electoral votes.
That year, however, the Republican Party made a fateful decision in the final weeks before Election Day: They ditched Dole and focused on rescuing down-ballot Republicans instead.
On Oct. 23, 1996, the New York Times reported that Republican operatives were now instructing “their party’s Congressional candidates to cut loose from Bob Dole and press voters to maintain a Republican majority” in order to “deny a re-elected President Clinton a ‘blank check’”; the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) went on to launch a $4 million ad blitz designed to deliver the same message to 50 hard-fought congressional districts.
“The liberal special interests aligned with Clinton desperately want to buy back control of Congress,’’ the NRCC ad claimed. “If we give the special interests a blank check in Congress, who’s going to represent us?”
The strategy wound up working: Republicans retained control of the House and actually picked up two seats in the Senate that November.
Ryan & Co. are clearly hoping the same thing will happen again this year. But they shouldn’t count on it. There are a few big differences between 1996 and 2016 that could make it tougher for the GOP to save Congress by shunning its nominee.
For one thing, split-ticket voting used be fairly common; today, it’s exceedingly rare. Hillary voters will be harder to peel off than Bill voters.
There’s also the nominee to consider. In mid-October 1996, 53 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Dole; only 37 percent saw him unfavorably. He wasn’t tarnishing the GOP brand.
Trump is. In fact, his current ratings are almost the exact opposite of Dole’s: 36.4 percent favorable versus 59.1 percent unfavorable. Those are the worst numbers in the history of presidential-election polling — and the GOP’s stats are even worse.
Finally, Dole, while disappointed, accepted his party’s decision. He didn’t attack the House speaker as “weak and ineffective.” He didn’t threaten to jail his opponent if elected. He didn’t revive decades-old scandals or recite fever-swamp conspiracy theories. He didn’t promise to punch back even harder. Most importantly, he didn’t rail against the GOP establishment and rally the far right to his side, alienating crucial swing voters in the process.
Trump has. As a result, he has put down-ballot Republicans in an impossible position. To win toss-up House and Senate races, Republicans need to turn out right-wing Trumpers and pick off a few moderate, independent types. But now, thanks to Trump, they can no longer do both at the same time. So do they dump the Donald and move to the center, thereby risking the support of Trump’s reinvigorated base? Or do they stick with an emboldened Trump and his ever-defiant fans — and go down with what appears to be a sinking ship?
On Monday, some GOP operatives argued for Option 1. Stop cowering in fear of a backlash from Trump supporters, they told Down Ticket. There isn’t as much downside as you think.
“If I’m running in a swing district or a blue or purple state, I’d take the gamble on losing some hard-core Trump voters versus getting crushed with independents,” said Liesl Hickey, who ran the House Republicans’ campaign arm two years ago and is now working as a consultant on a handful of races.
Most Republican voters tolerate — or even dislike — Trump, Hickey explained. The reason they’re supporting him, she continued, is because they loathe Clinton. Which means that as long as Hillary is still on the ballot Nov. 8, they will still show up to vote.
Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant who ran the super-PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy, agreed.
“Break their hearts,” he said of the Trump loyalists. “Save the party. And most will still vote [Republican] in November, down-ballot.”
Yet the calculus for each candidate is different. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican incumbent, has done a good job of shoring up his standing with swing voters in the highly populated Philadelphia suburbs, so he hasn’t felt compelled to reject Trump altogether. (Toomey condemned Trump’s comments from the 2005 video and says he’s still “waiting to be persuaded” to support him.)
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire — where Ayotte, Toomey’s counterpart, has bailed on Trump — the GOP candidate for governor, Chris Sununu, is sticking by his party’s presidential nominee even as he describes Trump’s remarks about women as “repugnant, unacceptable and offensive.”
Both candidates have their reasons. Ayotte doesn’t need to rally the base; her ground game is strong, and her support among conservatives is solid. She’s more worried about independents flocking to her Democratic opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” scandal. Sununu, on the other hand, doesn’t have a great field operation and isn’t trusted on the right. He needs all the fired-up Trumpers he can get.
Finally, in Nevada, Republican Joe Heck pulled an Ayotte on Saturday and revoked his Trump endorsement. “I can no longer look past the pattern of behavior and comments that have been made by Donald Trump,” the three-term congressman said in Las Vegas. “Therefore, I cannot in good conscience continue to support Donald Trump.”
The decision makes sense mathematically. Twenty-seven percent of Nevada voters are Latino — not Trump’s best demographic group. The state twice voted for Barack Obama. And Heck has led in every poll since the start of September. The Republican likely figured that he could afford to anger a few Trump fans in order to avoid losing the center. But the repercussions have been real: right-wingers have been booing Heck at his rallies, and Democrats have been relentlessly hammering him as a political opportunist.
“Congressman Heck’s reversal is nothing more than a pathetic, desperate attempt to salvage his career as a Washington politician,” says Sarah Zukowski, a spokesperson for Heck’s Democratic rival, Catherine Cortez Masto. “Where the heck was Congressman Heck when Trump was calling women fat pigs, slobs and dogs, Mexicans rapists and criminals, and mocking a disabled reporter? Still standing by Trump’s side. Well Congressman Heck, it’s too little, too late. Nevadans know this is not leadership, it’s just a Washington politician trying to save his career.”
In the end, however, it may not matter what individual Republicans do. As Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight has shown, the races for the Senate and the White House have been moving in lockstep.
“Seventy-six percent of the variation in the 2016 Senate polling averages can be explained by the presidential vote,” Enten recently wrote, noting that the number in previous cycles was identical. “There’s no sign at all that the strange presidential race is upsetting the recent trend of voters supporting the same candidate in both Senate and presidential races.”
What that means is that if Trump plummets in the national polls — and Clinton surges — down-ballot Republicans will likely suffer as well.
Even before the “Access Hollywood” brouhaha, Democrats were well-positioned to take back the Senate. To do so, they need a net gain of four seats, assuming Clinton wins the presidency. The FiveThirtyEight model gives them a 54.8 percent chance of success; the New York Times Upshot model gives them a 50 percent chance; the Princeton Election Consortium model gives them a 63 percent chance. And again, that’s only taking pre-tape polling into account.
The House will be harder. To win control, Democrats need to pick up 30 seats; currently, the Cook Political Report rates only 14 Republican-held seats as toss-ups and only an additional 12 as “Lean Republican.” That’s 26, total; Democrats could sweep them all and still come up short. Political science has also shown that the more of a lock one party’s presidential nominee becomes, the more voters tend to gravitate toward the other party’s down-ballot candidates in the name of “balance.” Theoretically, Clinton’s coattails could boost House and Senate Democrats up to a certain point — and then, if she seems certain to win, the balancing effect could come into play and counteract some of those gains.
Still, a stretch isn’t the same thing as an impossibility, as we’ve written before. Swings of 30 or more seats aren’t unprecedented — even in this era of rampant polarization and partisan gerrymandering.
“A change of this size has happened in two out of the last five congressional elections: a 31-seat gain for Democrats in 2006 and a 63-seat gain by Republicans in 2010,” notes neuroscientist Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium. “In the modern era of polarization, 1994-2014, a change of that size has happened in 3 out of 11 elections. Since 1946, it has happened in 10 out of 35 elections.”
So what would it take for Democrats to pull off a similar feat this time around?
The answer is pretty simple: They will need a wave election, which is what happens when some overarching, nationwide dynamic tips down-ballot races in a particular direction.
Like Trump’s implosion, for instance.
Size matters here. Pollsters like to ask voters what’s known as the generic congressional ballot question: Which party’s House candidate do you plan to vote for? The final results tend to come within 3 percentage points of November’s actual nationwide congressional vote, so analysts have some sense of what this year’s tipping point — the coast-to-coast margin that propels 30 or more of the party’s House pick-up candidates to victory — should be.
The consensus? To gain 30 seats, Democrats will need to lead on the generic congressional ballot question by at least 7 percentage points — and possibly by as much as 13, thanks to redistricting.
So far, there’s only been one national poll taken since the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. But it’s a doozy. According to NBC and the Wall Street Journal, Clinton is now trouncing Trump by 14 percentage points — 52 percent to 38 percent — in a head-to-head matchup, and by 11 percentage points — 46 percent to 35 percent — in a four-way contest with Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. And when likely voters were asked whether they’d prefer a Congress controlled by Democrats or a Congress controlled by Republicans, 49 percent said Democrats — and only 42 percent said Republicans.
That’s a 7-point gap — right on the low end of tipping-point range. Last month, Democrats led by 3 points on the generic congressional ballot question; in June, Democrats and Republicans were tied. If the numbers keep moving in the right direction, Nancy Pelosi & Co. could have a chance of recapturing the House — no matter how their Republican rivals react to Trump.
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(Cover tile photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
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