The House May Be in Play
On Friday, a bombshell dropped on Donald Trump, as an audio recording from 2005 featured him bragging about trying to sleep with married women and explaining that he would go up to women and “just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the p----. You can do anything.”
On the one hand, this isn’t all that different from unseemly statements made by Trump before. On the other hand, the context is different because (a) it’s Trump’s voice that is heard, rather than statements read on paper and (b) we’re now just a month out from the election, with early voting underway.
To be sure, we’ve seen Trump in these sorts of situations before, only to have him creep back into the race. For example, the one-two punch of the well-staged Democratic National Convention and his ensuing fight with the Khan family bumped Hillary Clinton up to a 7.6-point lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average on Aug. 9; a month later, Trump had whittled the lead down to two points.
I do think this time is probably different. Not only are voters more fully tuned in to the campaign, but the release of this material on a Friday in early October suggests that there is worse to come. My suspicion is that the next month will be filled with a deluge of similar Trump comments and tax returns, combined with various accusations against him. Maybe he’ll survive – if there’s one thing I’ve learned this cycle, it is to wait for polls – but it seems very unlikely at this point.
This has also created a no-win situation, from a purely electoral perspective, for down-ticket Republicans, who (assuming there are not enough Trump voters for Trump to win) need to form coalitions that bridge those voters and non-Trump voters. If they refuse to support Trump, they risk losing the support of the nominee’s hard-core backers, who are numerous in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada. If they continue to support the Republican standard-bearer, they risk losing the support of swing voters.
The implications for the Senate, which was exceedingly close before Friday evening, are now dire for Republicans. It was so close that small disruptions one way or the other could push things toward one side or the other, and the party split that will likely emerge from these revelations is not a “small” disruption.
What’s more interesting is the House. When Trump first secured the nomination in March, analysts speculated that he could flip the chamber to Democrats. That speculation subsided over the spring and summer, as Trump’s vote share held and Democratic recruiting efforts sputtered. As of today, RealClearPolitics has Republicans favored to lose about 15 House seats – a significant loss, but not enough to flip control.
But given the trajectory of the campaign for the past two weeks, we have to consider whether Democrats can win back the House. That’s not to say that Democrats are favored to take it back – they aren’t – but rather to say that this isn’t as absurd of a result as it seemed a few weeks ago. It is a possibility that now deserves to be taken seriously.
The scenario for Republicans would be akin to 1974. Thanks to Watergate that year, Republicans were wiped out across the board, even though President Ford was reasonably popular. Democrats gained 49 seats, inflating their numbers to 291, roughly the levels found in the Great Society/New Deal congresses.
It wasn’t that the country suddenly discovered an affinity for Democrats. Democrats received only 970,000 more votes than they had received in the previous midterm election of 1970. But Republicans hemorrhaged over 3 million votes. In other words, people didn’t flip their votes so much as a demoralized and disgusted GOP base opted to stay home.
Take Indiana. The Hoosier State was swingier back in those days, and Republicans entered the election holding seven of the state’s 11 seats. After the dust cleared in 1974, they found their numbers reduced to just two.
Some of the Democrats’ pickups were predictable, such as Andrew Jacobs winning back the seat that he had lost in the 1972 Nixon landslide, or Earl Landgrebe, who had won a fluky 11-way election in 1968, succumbing to the wave. Others were not. Consider William Bray, who had been elected to the House in 1950, and represented a district that had given Richard Nixon 74 percent of the vote. His opponent only increased the Democratic vote total by 3,815 votes from 1970. But Bray’s vote total collapsed by 43,979 as Republican base voters stayed home. He lost.
Another example was Rep. David Dennis, who had been one of Nixon’s strongest supporters on the House Judiciary Committee. In a district that Nixon had carried with 55 percent of the vote in 1968, Dennis’ loyalty seemed like a safe bet. It wasn’t. Phillip Sharp increased the Democratic vote total by 6,547, but Dennis’ declined by 9,738. He lost.
Not all districts followed this pattern, but the general outcome was that the Republican vote share declined in some heavily Republican districts, and there were many losses in districts previously thought to be safe for their party.
Will this be what occurs in 2016? It is obviously too early to say. Given the incredibly slow pace of polling this cycle, we might not know until Election Day. But if it happens, don’t be shocked.