Why the Trump Sex Tapes Matter

Why the Trump Sex Tapes Matter
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The October Surprise really was a surprise. It was not the Russians dumping hacked documents (though they did that), it was Donald Trump talking openly--and disgustingly--about his anything-goes sex life as a billionaire TV star. Politically, this is a meteor strike big enough to kill off the dinosaurs. Yet a few contrarian commentators have been trying to downplay its significance. They make two very different points.

First, they say, the Trump tapes are not worse than the revelations in Hillary's closed-door speeches to financial executives. Second, since there are so few undecided voters, they don’t think the tapes will affect the final totals.

They are wrong on both counts.

The Trump tapes are politically devastating--far more so than Hillary's newly released speeches

The reasons are straightforward. Talking about sex is a lot more interesting than talking about Dodd-Frank banking regulations. If that is not true for you, see your doctor immediately.

Second, audio and video are a lot more compelling than transcripts of speeches, and audio of the candidate’s own words is most compelling of all. Ask Mitt Romney about the secret video of his “47 percent” comment.

Substantively, the revelations about Trump and Clinton don’t change existing (negative) perceptions. They reinforce them. He's a sleazy, swaggering showman who treats women as sex objects. She's a double-dealer who presents one face to the public and another behind closed doors with donors, and uses her political position to make money for herself and her foundation. Nothing new on either candidate.

But the media and public are far more interested in hearing Trump talk about sex on secret recordings than reading Hillary talk about helping her friends on Wall Street.

"Voters already knew this about Trump, and there are very few undecided voters anyway"

The statement is correct, but the implication is wrong. These tapes will influence the election, even if Clinton was already likely to win, as the polls and political-betting markets have been saying.

There may not be many undecided voters, but there are plenty of weakly committed ones. After learning what Trump said about women, some of his least-committed supporters will simply stay home. That is particularly true of Christian conservatives, who were never comfortable with Trump to begin with. The nomination of Gov. Mike Pence reassured them; these tapes rattle them, as they did Pence himself.

Conversely, the tapes will galvanize some of Hillary's previously weak supporters to come out and vote, less for her and more against Trump. Either way, she benefits, as she does from the slow meltdown of Libertarian Gary Johnson's campaign. Johnson was taking votes from Hillary, and virtually all his dramatic drop has gone to her. (There will be some Republicans now who might vote for neither party's nominee, as John McCain has announced he would, but that won't help Trump, either.)

Even a small increase in Hillary’s margins matters. That’s because our electoral system is designed to convert small differences in raw votes into large differences in electoral votes. Additionally, the larger Hillary's margin of victory, the more likely Democrats are to carry the Senate. Before Friday's revelations, online bookies had installed Democrats as a 58 percent  favorite to win Senate control. Those odds quickly rose to 69 percent on a site called PredictIt.  If the Democrats win the presidency --now even more likely than before—they only need 50 seats (not 51) to control the Senate: Vice President Tim Kaine would control the tie vote. The markets are now saying that is more than a two-thirds probability.

Republican hopes of keeping the Senate would now seem to depend on ticket-splitting, a once frequent phenomenon that is now as rare as a Donald Trump apology.  Republican candidates are in even worse shape if they openly backed Trump or said nice things about him. New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is in a tough race against a popular Democratic governor, must be slamming her head into a wall when she remembers calling Trump a good role model for her own daughter. Although she has now dumped Trump, her headache remains. For Republican candidates like her, there is only one silver lining: National donors and the party apparatus will now turn away from the presidential election to concentrate on helping these embattled down-ballot candidates. That is small comfort.

If the Senate flips and Hillary Clinton wins, she will be in a much stronger position to govern, beginning with her Supreme Court nominees. Virtually all of President Obama's legislative achievements came in his first two years, when the Democrats controlled both houses. Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through the White House agenda. If New York Sen. Chuck Schumer becomes majority leader, he will do the same thing to help Clinton.

This time around, the Democrats are unlikely to win the House, but the latest Trump uproar may have changed that equation as well. Regardless, as Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan know all too well, it is hard to block the White House with only one branch of government, and it is impossible to actually govern from the House. The House Republican leadership will be in a tough position if Democrats control the executive branch and the Senate and the House retains its strong, principled House Freedom Caucus; in that case, compromise will be even harder to come by in Washington. That was dynamic that crushed Boehner’s spirit. It will close in on Ryan, too, who will probably become the Republicans’ titular head after Nov. 8.

The bottom line: Even though the sex-talk tapes don’t reveal anything truly new about Trump, they put his defects up in bright, Las Vegas lights—and in his own words. Even if there are few undecided voters, the tapes will affect weakly committed voters. They make it easier for Hillary to win and significantly increase the Democrats' chances on Capitol Hill.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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