As Hillary Clinton’s polling leads over Donald Trump have expanded in the last few weeks, Democrats have been positively giddy. Numerous reports have been published recently in which “well-placed Democratic sources” have said that retaking the Senate is all but a done deal and that the House of Representatives might even be in reach. Various number-crunchers have begun to calculate the margin by which Clinton needs to win in order to carry in a fully Democratic Congress with her, with the general consensus being somewhere from 8 to 10 percent.
As football commentator Lee Corso says every week on ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast: “Not so fast, my friend.”
It is always tempting to prognosticators, both of the professional and the armchair variety, to look to the past in discerning clues for the future. And it is true that in recent elections, the party winning the White House has also fared well down-ballot. Democrats made major gains in 2008 and modest ones in 2012. Republicans made decent gains in 2004. As the nation’s partisan divide has hardened, the generally accepted consensus is that “ticket-splitting” has become less likely.
But this is no normal election, as should be apparent to anyone paying even cursory attention to it. The Republican Party has nominated a candidate who large segments of the population (including no small number of Republicans) find unpalatable, and the recent revelations of his crude, sexist comments caught years ago on a hot microphone have helped crater his poll numbers. (The Party Crasher, who always expected Trump would lose, now sees not even a theoretical path for the GOP nominee to win this election.) An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released October 16 showed Clinton leading by 11 percent.
If that margin holds up through the election, it would be the greatest popular-vote landslide in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan’s 18-point, 49-state triumph in 1984. And if the number-crunchers are right, that kind of margin would give the Democrats at least a puncher’s chance to flip both the Senate and the House.
However, we must not forget that Clinton, like Trump, is also unpopular, and while a significant segment of voters would prefer her to her opponent, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they like her, trust her, or want to see her program enacted. In polling taken since October 10, Clinton’s average favorable rating is 41.7 percent, and her unfavorable rating is 53.2 percent. There is no deep reservoir of affection or trust for the Democratic nominee or her agenda.
If Clinton does, in fact, win the election by a percentage approaching or exceeding double digits, it means that she will have won the votes of millions of Americans who, in past elections, have voted for Republican candidates. It also means that she will have won millions of votes from people who generally do not like or trust her. Does it not seem odd to assume that they will necessarily vote Democratic up and down the ballot?
The aforementioned NBC/Wall Street Journal poll tested this premise and discovered some results that very clearly point to a great deal of ticket-splitting favoring Clinton at the top of the ticket, but proving much less favorable to down ballot Democrats. The survey found Democrats with only a two percent edge in the Congressional races, 46 percent to 44 percent, and this margin was down significantly from a six percent edge in another NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken October 8-10.
The poll also found that when specifically asked whether they would rather vote for a Democratic congressional candidate who would support Clinton’s agenda, or a Republican candidate who would serve as a check against her, those surveyed overwhelmingly preferred, by a 53 to 40 percent margin, a Republican who would block her. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out the thinking that this result must be spawning among Republican movers and shakers, many of whom reportedly are already resigned to Trump’s defeat on November 8. The message “Vote Republican to Block the Clinton Agenda” clearly has legs.
Current polling in individual Senate races also gives no indication of a Democratic down-ballot wave. According to RealClearPolitics.com, Democrats currently lead five of the nine most competitive Senate races, which would be just enough to pull into a 50-50 tie with the GOP. (This would represent a Democratic hold in Nevada and pickups in four GOP-held seats.) However, in two of those states (Nevada and Pennsylvania), their average polling leads as of October 16 were less than one-half of one percent. And in most of these competitive races, Democrats have actually seen their positions deteriorate in recent weeks, with Republicans moving back into modest leads in New Hampshire and North Carolina, and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold’s lead in Wisconsin shrinking from margins approaching or exceeding double digits to about three percent.
In short, the recent movement in the Senate polling has not been leftward. This columnist noted two months ago that in many key states, Democratic Senate candidates were lagging significantly behind Clinton. This dynamic has not changed. The polling we are seeing right now shows no evidence yet of a Democratic wave developing behind Clinton, even as she expands her lead.
The key factor in this election that will determine whether Democrats reclaim the Senate and make major gains in the House is whether unenthusiastic Republicans show up at the polls or not. If large numbers of Republicans are so dismayed by their candidate and/or the prospect of defeat that they simply stay home, this works to the advantage of Democrats down-ballot. But if Republicans do show up, even if many of them cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump, they can still save their party’s Congressional majorities, at least in the House and possibly in the Senate as well.
The GOP’s wisest course of action now, with Trump clearly headed for defeat, is to quietly concede the presidential race and spread the message that Republican voters must support their Congressional candidates to block the Clinton agenda. And with Clinton’s poor approval ratings, this is a message that could resonate with independents as well.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com