After the wild events of the last few days, the whole political world is awaiting the fallout. The talk over the weekend of the Republican Party somehow replacing Donald Trump as its presidential nominee against his wishes was never very convincing, and will presumably stop after his base-pleasing second presidential debate performance.
But Trump, who was already losing ground in polls before the Access Hollywood video of him boasting about getting away with sexual assault appeared, will almost certainly lose some more. It cannot be good news for Team Trump that a new Rasmussen poll taken over the weekend gives Clinton a seven-point lead. Another weekend poll from Economist/YouGov survey shows Clinton up by six points. And this just in: A new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey taken after the video came out but before Sunday’s debate gives Clinton an 11-point lead (46 percent to Trump’s 35 percent) among likely voters in a four-way race. The last poll from that outlet back in mid-September gave Clinton a six-point lead.
Aside from the strong possibility that Trump’s odds of becoming president have dropped to near zero (barring additional crazy developments), the evolving shape of the presidential race could obviously affect down-ballot contests. It is no accident that the “exodus” of Republicans disclaiming or rescinding support for Trump after the video came out included the Republican candidates in two of the nation’s closest Senate races: Joe Heck in Nevada and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. Given the prevailing high levels of straight-ticket voting, both these and other GOP Senate candidates in close races (e.g., Richard Burr in North Carolina, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and Todd Young in Indiana) could be in serious trouble if Trump falls far behind nationally. A presidential landslide could put GOP-held seats in Florida and Missouri at risk as well.
With Democrats only needing a net gain of four seats (plus the tie-breaking vice-presidency, of course) to take control of the upper chamber, the odds of that happening have gone up significantly, and with it the likelihood that Clinton as president would be able to have her executive-branch and judicial appointments confirmed (including those to the Supreme Court, assuming, as one should, that Democrats will be willing to abolish the right to filibuster those nominations).
But if Trump’s loss of support is toward the high end of the likely range of developments, and if he does not rebound, then for the first time in months the possibility of Democrats winning the net 31 House seats they need for control of that chamber will become a serious topic of discussion.
What kind of advantage would Democrats need to pull off that coup? It’s not entirely clear. One useful benchmark is the 2006 election where Democrats won the national popular vote for the House by 8 percent and made a net gain of 31 seats, 15 more than they needed for control. But that was prior to the last decennial redistricting round, in which Republicans entrenched so many House seats that they held onto a 16-seat majority despite losing the national popular vote by 1.2 percent.
During an extensive discussion at Vox on the math of House Democratic prospects, Jeff Stein quotes congressional election specialist Geoffrey Skelley suggesting a six-point Clinton win would put the House “in play.” By that he means Clinton would carry about 50 House districts currently controlled by Republicans, which should give the Democratic candidates in those districts a crucial advantage. It might not be enough to flip the House, however, in part because some districts have relatively weak Democratic challengers running against well-financed and even popular GOP incumbents, and in part because it’s unclear what Gary Johnson voters will do in down-ballot races. If Clinton gets an actual majority of the popular vote, the odds of a Democratic House will go up significantly.
Such calculations do not take into account the possibility of a massive shift of resources by the Republican National Committee and pro-GOP super-pacs from the presidential to down-ballot races, which could give GOP congressional candidates a lift relative to their beleaguered presidential nominee. And for some time now there has been speculation that congressional Republican leaders might signal a pivot to what is known as a “checks and balances” message that all but concedes the presidential race and warns voters they need a GOP Congress to make sure Hillary Clinton does not do crazy liberal things. Indeed, there are reports today that Speaker Paul Ryan is doing just that.
The odds of that kind of strategic decision went up significantly when Trump’s video appeared on Friday. And there’s some precedent (e.g., presidential landslides in 1972 and 1984 that did not give the winning party much if any traction down-ballot) for believing voters in a runaway presidential race might consciously or unconsciously tilt toward the “losing” party down-ballot to keep the “winners” from running amok — though the precedents are mostly from an era when ticket-splitting was more common. Such messaging might, however, damage Trump, whether or not it contained his electoral poison.
One metric to watch in the days just ahead is the so-called “generic congressional ballot,” a polling question about intentions to support one major party or the other in House elections. At present the RealClearPolitics polling averages give Democrats a 2.6 percent lead in the generic congressional ballot — but the new NBC/WSJ survey noted above gives Democrats a seven-point (49-42) lead. The Princeton Election Consortium’s Sam Wang calculates that Democrats could become seriously optimistic about gaining control of the House if they led the generic ballot by 7 to 8 percent — and that’s after spotting Republicans a dozen seats secured via gerrymandering that they would otherwise lose.
The stakes involved in this fight for the House are considerable. With both chambers of Congress in Democratic hands — and with the congressional Democratic Party being more ideologically liberal than in the past — a newly elected President Clinton could seriously contemplate a legislative blitz on a wide array of subjects — fixing Obamacare, entrenching Obama executive orders on immigration and climate change, expanding Social Security, raising the minimum wage, just to mention a few — that would never survive a Republican-controlled House or Senate. The Obama administration’s bad experience with “bipartisanship,” and the strong possibility of GOP gains in 2018, would likely steel the resolve of Democrats to get as much done as possible on a purely partisan basis.
Whatever Republicans decide to do about their wounded presidential nominee, you can expect Democrats to begin begging Hillary Clinton’s campaign to do everything within its power to help down-ballot candidates. It could make the difference between a governing majority, however brief, in Washington, and another four years of gridlock as the GOP tries to figure out its post-Trump future.