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When Down-Ballot Republicans Should Dump Trump

In this week’s politics chat, we wonder whether more Republicans will start to un-endorse Donald Trump. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone! Today’s topic: With Donald Trump’s recent slide in the polls, should down-ballot Republicans — candidates for the U.S. Senate, House, etc. — start to think about abandoning Trump? If so, when? (For the record: We decided on this topic yesterday, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine abandoned Trump in an op-ed today. #prescience)

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): What you all seem to neglect is that this is ALL PART OF TRUMP’S PLAN. Lull your opponent into a false sense of security. Let her lead by 9 percentage points in August. Then after Labor Day? BAM! Turn on your master persuader skills. Result: Landslide.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I think that Susan Collins had the luxury of making a moral stand because she isn’t up for re-election this year. I would be more interested to see something like that from someone like Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is up for re-election in New Hampshire and actually has something to lose. I’m not sure Ayotte would get Republicans seeing her side of the equation if she abandoned Trump. I was in the convention hall in Cleveland after Ted Cruz shunned a Trump endorsement and people did not seem super happy. “Binary choice” is the buzz-phrase du jour in the GOP right now.

dave (David Wasserman, House editor at the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Did anyone else think it was kind of weird Collins penned this in the Post rather than a Maine outlet? Whatever you thought of Paul Ryan’s op-ed, at least he faced his own Wisconsin voters in the Janesville Gazette.

But to Clare’s point, I’d be curious what Kelly Ayotte would be saying if her primary weren’t in September. I suspect she’d be singing a different tune. We’ve already shown that down-ballot, where you stand on Trump depends a lot on your vulnerability.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I find the breakdowns within states such as Maine interesting. You have two major Republican officials statewide: Gov. Paul LePage and Collins. LePage was one of the first to back Trump. Collins refuses.

clare.malone: Maine is filled with confounding rapscallions! A state of blueberries and political complexity.

natesilver: Maine is weird (I mean that in a nice way since it’s one of my favorite states). You’ve got LePage, Collins and independent Sen. Angus King all representing the state at the same time. And it’s also elected some fairly conventional liberals to the U.S. House and so forth. But its demographics are relatively Trump-friendly, especially in the 2nd congressional district, which is why Trump has spent some time campaigning there.

micah: But to set us up here, someone give us a general overview of the Senate landscape.

harry: The Democrats need a net gain of four Senate seats to win a majority if Clinton wins the presidency, and five if Trump wins. (Remember, the vice president breaks a tie.) Before the latest drop in the polls for Trump, Democrats were probably going to pick up seats in the true-blue states, Illinois and Wisconsin. The question now is whether they can hold onto Nevada (where Sen. Harry Reid is retiring) and then pick up two (or three) more seats from swing states like Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. They’re also looking to put John McCain on the defensive in Arizona, along with Richard Burr in North Carolina, among other more difficult pickup opportunities. And we have limited polling in Indiana where Evan Bayh is trying to pick up the retiring Dan Coats’s seat.

POLLING MARGIN
STATE GOP SENATE CANDIDATE TRUMP DIFFERENCE
Arizona +5 +1 +4
Florida +5 -4 +9
Illinois -1 -18 +17
Missouri +7 +4 +3
Nevada +3 -3 +6
New Hampshire +2 -2 +4
North Carolina +4 -1 +5
Ohio +4 -4 +8
Pennsylvania +2 -6 +8
Wisconsin -8 -9 +1
Average +6.5
Trump’s running behind Republican Senate candidates in key states

As of 4:05 PM on August 3

Source: Huffington Post/Pollster.com

clare.malone: What I’m wondering is whether more members of Congress won’t start abandoning Trump if his polling numbers stay low or continue to slide as we reach autumn and the leaves start falling. Collins basically said that Trump’s comments about the Khan family were the last straw for her, but I’ll also note that his numbers have been pretty dismal of late, so I wonder if there wasn’t some thinking that you should attack the gazelle while it’s wounded. (Yes, Trump is the gazelle in this scenario.)

I think we can safely say that if Trump loses, Republicans will do as much as they can to make Americans try to black out the last year of their lives. They will want to disappear Trump from our memories.

micah: Dave, you’re talking to these candidates pretty regularly, right? So far, vulnerable GOP candidates have toed the Trump line — have you heard anything to make you think that’ll change?

dave: In interviewing House candidates, about half of Republicans sound intrigued by the potential for Trump to bring out new voters, and about half acknowledge he’s a big drag and are eager to distance themselves. There’s a bit of internal strife within the GOP consultancy hierarchy at the moment. Some ad-makers are arguing it’s time to openly diss him, and some say it’s too early to throw him under the bus. What’s fascinating is that those tensions are getting really fierce behind the scenes. My sense is that it depends on your district, but that Rep. Mike Coffman, who sits in a Democratic-leaning seat outside Denver, is doing something shrewd: bashing both Trump and Clinton in the same breath. A big overlooked factor is how Gary Johnson/Jill Stein voters will behave down-ballot, and Coffman is making a play for them.

natesilver: So let me describe what I think is the nightmare scenario for GOP members of Congress. It’s not necessarily Trump damaging the party’s brand. I mean, that’s a BIG BIG BIG problem, but that’s a long-term problem. The short-term problem is that the election looks like a landslide, and so your voters don’t show up.

Remember, only about 35 percent of voters have a favorable impression of Trump! There’s another 5-10 percent of the electorate that might show up to vote for him, if only because they’re used to voting ‘R’ or because they think Clinton is worse. But if it looks like a blowout, maybe they don’t bother to vote.

clare.malone: One thing I’m wondering, Dave, to your point that people are intrigued by turning out new people, is whether or not those new people might vote for Trump at the top of the ticket, but then vote against Republicans down-ballot. This is a worry that was expressed to me by a Republican strategist — that these blue-collar historical Democrats that Trump is courting might screw Republicans running for lesser offices.

dave: The right model for 2016 Republicans to avoid a nightmare scenario could be 1996. At a certain point it was clear that Bob Dole would lose, and a number of Republicans began making checks-and-balances arguments. If Trump’s numbers stay where they are, it’s easy to see Republicans making a lot of progress by arguing that they’re necessary to “hold Hillary accountable.”

Dole lost pretty badly in 1996, but Republicans managed to hold their House majority. Democrats only won about half the seats they needed for a majority, and you could see the same thing happen this year. The Senate, however, is a different story.

natesilver: Right. You’d rather it not be a blowout. But if it looks like a blowout, you want to give those Trump-skeptical Republicans a reason to turn out and permission not to vote for Trump. There’s some danger in getting stuck in between, I suppose.

harry: Here’s the potential problem with that 1996 comparison: More voters today choose candidates from the same party at all levels, rather than voting for a Republican for Senate and a Democrat for president, for example. Could 2016 be different than the past three cycles? Sure, but I don’t think it is too surprising that polls in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are starting to show the Republican incumbents losing as Trump gets trounced.

clare.malone: So if Ayotte were to fully embrace Trump and get Trumpian herself (which I really can’t see her doing, but let’s engage with this thought exercise) would she be doing better, do we think? (For the record, I think it would ring inauthentic coming from her, in particular.)

dave: It’s a fair question. I think the more intriguing question is how newly activated Clinton voters will behave. In my mind there are predominantly two distinct sets of anti-Trump voters: traditional, well-educated Republicans turned off by Trump, and young/Latino/Asian voters who haven’t shown up before. If I were a GOP Senate or House candidate, I’d rather have a lot of the former category in my district than the latter, because the former would be more likely to cross over.

natesilver: I find the party-line voting argument less persuasive than the rest of you do, I think. Trump breaks the mold in so many ways that it isn’t that hard to imagine voters splitting their tickets. But you have to remind them what a vote for a conventional Republican represents. And that isn’t so clear right now. The party doesn’t have much of a coherent message, apart from Trump, and the message they had wasn’t selling very well, which is part of why Trump was able to win the nomination.

harry: For example, I don’t think Rep. Tom Price is going to have a problem in Georgia’s 6th district, in the northern Atlanta suburbs, but I’d expect Trump to greatly underperform there. That’s one of the most highly educated and Republican districts in the country.

dave: I’ll second Nate there. I’d argue that Ayotte would be doing worse if she fully embraced Trump, and better if she fully ditched Trump. What I’m seeing is that the biggest Trump boosters in the most marginal districts are paying a bit of a price. Take, for example, Rep. Darrell Issa in California, who has never had a tough re-election but sits in a coastal San Diego/Orange County district that’s rapidly trending away from the Republican brand. He’s been a reliable Trump surrogate on television, and all of a sudden, he finds himself in a much closer race than he’s had in the past.

clare.malone: It’s interesting to think about regionalism rearing its head, to talk about the various ways that people in New Hampshire, California, and Georgia might react to Trump and their particular members of Congress. It brings to mind some advice that’s in a memo from a Republican strategist that Politico got hold of last week. The thread of advice that rung most loudly throughout the memo was along this line: “You know your voters better than anyone. Make the decision based solely on what your district expects—not what party leaders, consultants or anyone else expects.”

harry: But how much distance can these candidates really get from Trump? I could see Ayotte winning in New Hampshire if Trump loses by 5 percentage points. But can she really win if Trump loses by 10?

natesilver: But maybe you’re confusing correlation and causation, Harry.

Other things being equal, Ayotte’s more likely to win if Trump loses by 5 — or wins New Hampshire, certainly — than if he loses by 15. Trump’s performance is largely out of her control, however. Holding the Trump vote constant, she can potentially increase the amount of ticket-splitting by distancing herself from Trump.

harry: Oh sure. But if your offensive line sucks, having Otto Graham as your quarterback probably isn’t enough.

dave: If Ayotte went full Susan Collins, wouldn’t more New Hampshire voters view her as approvingly as Maine voters view Collins? Collins got 61 percent of the vote in 2008 as President Obama was clobbering John McCain in her state. It’s Ayotte’s weird obfuscation on Trump that makes her sound like the Alison Lundergan Grimes of 2016.

harry: Sure, Dave, but Collins has been cultivating an image in Maine for a number of years. Ayotte is only a first-term incumbent running against a fairly popular governor. Plus, Maine has shown a tendency to buck presidential vote patterns, while New Hampshire has been far more lineup with it the past few cycles anyway.

natesilver: With Collins, it’s also about what sort of future she imagines for the Republican Party. If it becomes the Party of Trump — well, maybe she becomes an independent or a Democrat before long, no? She’s about as far away from Trump as you can imagine, really.

harry: Collins is the only old-school liberal Republican left in the Senate.

clare.malone: Won’t those famed (though possibly mythically overstated) New Hampshire independents be an unpredictable factor for Ayotte?

micah: That’s what I don’t get. Is the bloc of voters who favor Trump but don’t usually vote Republican that big?

natesilver: No, not at all. But the opposite is true. There’s a big block of voters who normally vote Republican but have cold feet about Trump.

micah: So that’s an argument for a candidate to jump ship. (As long as Trump is losing by 7 or 8 or 9 percentage points.)

clare.malone: Should we dial Ayotte into this chat?

micah: I would love to see the Ayotte campaign’s strategy memos and polling. Maybe they’ve done a poll asking New Hampshire voters whether they’d be more or less likely to back Ayotte if she endorsed Trump.

clare.malone: (Leak to us, New Hampshire!!!)

harry: I think the things you need to balance here are 1. How likely is not backing Trump going to hurt you in a primary; 2. How likely is not backing Trump going to help you in a general election; 3. Your own feelings on Trump.

There’s a mathematical model here that I’m sure someone will be sending to my inbox after this is published.

natesilver: Someone should probably raise the point that politicians who have crossed Trump haven’t necessarily fared very well, though. Look at what has happened to Cruz’s numbers after the RNC, for instance.

harry: Sure, though Cruz’s Republican base in Texas looks a lot different than Collins’s in Maine.

micah: How much sway does party leadership have in all this? Does it matter that Paul Ryan has been so wishy-washy? And is it possible, if Trump’s struggles continue, that we’d see some type of more official break with Trump? Led by Ryan and McConnell?

natesilver: Republican “party leadership” is becoming sort of an oxymoron, like that old Will Rogers line about not being a member of any organized political party since he was a Democrat.

dave: I suspect you’ll see more Republicans distancing themselves from Trump who haven’t before, and the media will treat it as a trend or a reaction to new Trump controversies. In fact, they already have (see Richard Hanna, Charlie Dent, and Scott Rigell). But in reality, it will be because primaries have passed or members are retiring. It all comes down to timing and political incentives.

harry: If the party leadership was so powerful then Trump probably wouldn’t be the nominee.

clare.malone: I kinda think the Paul Ryan wishy-washiness is ultimately a smart strategy for the terrible position he was put in this year. He’s taken every chance to say Trump has done something stupid when he’s done something stupid, but other than that, Ryan is trying to keep out of the news. He’s like the guy in the pool who’s sorta not kicking and just drafting off the faster swimmer in front of him, hoping the coach won’t notice, to use a tortured Olympics-themed metaphor.

natesilver: Obviously it would be a big deal if Ryan or McConnell or Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus explicitly encouraged their candidates to distance themselves from Trump. But in the meantime, it seems like everyone is sort of left to their own devices. What’ll probably happen is that 1. eventually, one or two high-profile Senate candidates will abandon Trump and 2. everyone else will (over)interpret how the polling shifts once that happens and either follow suit or not, depending on how they read the data.

micah: Dave’s point about the primaries is really important, I think. And a reminder that 99.9 percent of whether these candidates back Trump or distance themselves from Trump may come down to political expediency — it seems like principle has very little to do with it.

dave: The closer up you are to members of the GOP congressional leadership, the more striking their timidity and lack of control over the party is. I had a conversation with a senior House Republican last week who told me that Trump “acts like a seven-year-old” and “makes me want to leave politics altogether.” But that member was a Trump delegate and has never publicly rebuked Trump. If he did, he’d probably lose his leadership position in the conference.

clare.malone: Basically, the shorter version of this chat is: politicians are cynical.

harry: We already had Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois abandon Trump. He’ll probably still lose. I wonder if McCain would do it after his primary.

dave: Could we talk geography for a second? There’s an important distinction between the House and Senate that we haven’t touched on. The places where Clinton is likeliest to outperform past Democrats are areas that are valuable to Senate Democrats but not necessarily beneficial to House Dems. For example, lots of Puerto Ricans are moving from the island to the Orlando area, and that could be enormously helpful to Clinton and Democrats’ chances of beating Marco Rubio for the Senate seat there. But most of these new voters are settling south of Orlando, in Florida’s 9th District, which Democrats already hold.

micah: So Dave, you still think, despite Trump going from being down 5-6 percentage points in June/early July to down 7-8 now, that the House isn’t really in play?

dave: I’m still most comfortable in the 10-20 seat range for Democratic gains in the House. They’d need 30 seats to win the majority.

natesilver: DAVE, ARE WE GOING TO HAVE TO BUILD A FREAKIN’ HOUSE MODEL?

harry: “House” was a weird show, but predicting the House can be fun. The polling is more sparse and building a strong fundamentals-based model is important.

clare.malone: lol, we have different definitions of fun, Harry.

natesilver: The House model might wind up looking like the Olympic Village in Rio, given how fast we’d have to put it together.

clare.malone: Boom. I like how all the Sochi jokes translate to Rio.

micah: Before we wrap, any educated guesses on which Republicans are most likely to follow Collins? (Maybe once all the primaries are over?)

clare.malone: I mean … McCain? Presuming he wins his primary challenge — Trump has taken all kinds of personal pot-shots against the guy.

dave: My dark horse for a Clinton endorsement IF IT WERE REALLY CLOSE is George W. Bush. But I’m not sure it will come to that, and I’m also not sure who it would hurt/help.

natesilver: I suppose I’m interested in Gov. John Kasich in Ohio, if only because he’s a pretty popular guy there and it’s hard to imagine Trump winning the Electoral College without Ohio.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

David Wasserman is the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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