Less than a month ago, Republicans tabled their “check-and-balance” strategy as Donald Trump creeped closer to Hillary Clinton in the polls. “We were in the ICU, flatlining,” a Republican operative told Roll Call’s Alex Roarty. “We’re still in the hospital, but we’re in the normal room now.”
But now, as audio evidence surfaced and made Trump’s treatment of women more palpable, Republicans have a long wait for a potentially fatal electoral diagnosis.
In terms of election analysis, it’s important to separate Trump’s fate from down-ballot Republicans’ fate. Of course Democrats want you to believe that they are one and the same, and in the end, they might be. But up to this point in the cycle, there hasn’t been a uniform correlation between Trump and House and Senate Republicans.
It will be at least a week before we know the “new normal” of this election cycle for down-ballot races.
Partisan polling won’t begin in earnest until at least Monday (after the video revelation and the second debate). It will be conducted over the course of two to three days, and then will need some time to be digested. That means it won’t be until at least Thursday or Friday or even next weekend before we’ll know whether the bottom has fallen out for the entire Republican Party this election.
A determination about the presidential race won’t take that long.
The video and subsequent GOP defections make it all but impossible for Trump to win the White House. Self-identifying Republicans make up about only one-third of the electorate, so as Trump loses GOP support, he’ll need to make up that ground with Democrats or independents. That’s just not likely to happen under the circumstances.
A unified Republican Party is essential to a Trump victory and the latest revelations have turned that feat into a fantasy.
Trump’s performance has had an impact on the competitive Senate and House races over the last three months, but there are plenty of districts and states where voters have demonstrated a willingness to split their tickets.
The most critical questions for the newest Trump defectors are: Are you still going to vote? How are you going to vote in Senate and House races? These are the same questions I’ve been asking for three months.
Top GOP strategists are deeply concerned about turnout. A decline in GOP voters could cause a catastrophe for the party up and down the ballot. But if the Trump defectors still turn out to vote (possibly not voting for president, voting for Clinton, or for a third-party candidate) and support Republican candidates for the Senate and House, then Republicans will have a bad, but not terrible night.
It’s unclear how Trump’s supporters will react to GOP candidates and vulnerable Republican senators renouncing their support for the party’s presidential nominee. Will they vote for Democratic candidates, skip down-ballot races, or begrudgingly support GOP candidates? Each of those answers has a separate consequence, and we won’t know which scenario is playing out until later in the week.
But if even a small percentage of agitated Trump supporters withhold their support from GOP candidates, it would make a difference. A shift of just 2-5 points in the most critical Senate races would give Democrats control of the chamber and make New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer the majority leader.
Of course it’s possible that GOP candidates who have now renounced Trump gain support from voters who thought they were insufficiently against the GOP nominee. That’s unthinkable to Democrats who are apoplectic about the entire situation, but the scenario can’t be ruled out.
The latest Trump debacle creates another problem for Republicans.
When the Mark Foley story broke in 2006, it became virtually impossible for Republican candidates to break through with any other message. It’s critical for GOP candidates to be able to push their own positive message to counteract Trump’s image and try to define their opponents in order to survive. Republicans leveled a serious hit on former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in Indiana, but it’s not clear how much air it will get with the Trump story sucking up the oxygen.
Instant analysis reigns supreme these days, but when it comes to the impact of Trump’s demise on down-ballot races, we just have to wait and see.