A series of women have accused Donald Trump of sexually assaulting them. Trump has denied the claims. But given the number of accusers and the release of a tape last week that showed Trump bragging about actions similar to the ones the women described, the stories are likely to be a problem for his campaign.
We’re 26 days away from the election, so I wanted to advance a series of simple propositions about how the allegations might affect Trump’s prospects. If this stuff sounds familiar, it probably should, since it’s similar to the analysis I did after the release of the tape last week.
Proposition No. 1: Trump isn’t “Teflon.” Stories like these have hurt him. The conventional wisdom from the primaries — that Trump was unaffected by scandals or other negative storylines — hasn’t held up in the general election. Trump is the most unpopular presidential nominee of the modern era, and furthermore, downswings in his polling correlate well with specific incidents, such as his criticism of Judge Gonzalo Curiel and Khizr and Ghazala Khan. He’s also lost further ground to Hillary Clinton since the tape was released last week.
Proposition No. 2: These events may affect Trump’s “ceiling” more than his “floor.” At some point, though, one wonders how much lower Trump can go. He’s getting only 39 percent of the vote in national polls, a low figure for such a partisan era. Even if Trump gets embroiled in further scandals, each one may drive away fewer voters than the one before, as he’s already been involved in so many. And Trump’s response to the accusations — such lashing out at The New York Times and other media organizations that reported his accusers’ stories — could play well with his base.
But 39 percent of the vote won’t be enough for Trump to win the election or come anywhere close to it. At a minimum, he’ll need around 46 percent on Nov. 8, assuming that about 8 percent of the vote goes to third-party candidates. Where he’ll get those votes from is hard to say. Based on recent polls, I’d estimate that about 35 percent of Trump’s current voters are white men without a college degree, by far Trump’s best demographic group. But only around 10 percent of voters who don’t currently support Trump fall into that category. Trump will have to win over women, college-educated white men or people of color to win the election, and the events of the past week are unlikely to help him with any of those groups.
Proposition No. 3: It’s plausible that the effect on the polls could be temporary rather than permanent. There’s a complicated debate about whether election polls are essentially mean-reverting or instead resemble a random walk. In other words, if Trump goes from being (for instance) 5 percentage points behind to 7 points behind as a result of some news event, is he more likely than not to rebound to 5 points after a couple of weeks? Or is the 7-point deficit the new normal? There’s even a third possibility — that polls are momentum-driven, so that if a candidate loses ground in a poll, he’s likely to continue losing further ground.
Without getting too deep into the weeds, I’d just remind you to be open to the possibility that the accusations could have an effect that will last for between a few days and a couple of weeks, but that could fade once other issues displace them in the news cycle. Of course, with less than four weeks to go until the election and people already voting in many states, even a temporary change in the polling numbers could still be reflected in the outcome on Nov. 8.
Proposition No. 4: We probably haven’t seen the end of this. If Trump turns out to be a serial sexual abuser, there’s a good chance that other women will come forward with stories like the ones we’ve heard already. And the women who have come forward so far may yet share additional details about Trump’s alleged conduct. In the past, Trump has also shown a tendency to extend news cycles by refusing to admit wrongdoing and attacking his accusers, even when faced with accusations far less serious than these. We’re already starting to see Trump repeat that pattern here.
Furthermore, opposition researchers have begun releasing information at a prodigious rate, with major new stories about Trump dropping every few days. Many political operatives and campaign reporters believe that there’s more damaging information about Trump that has yet to be made public. While sometimes those guesses can turn out to be wrong, Trump has lived in the public spotlight for decades, leaving a long paper and video trail, and crossing paths — and swords — with many people along the way. The probability of additional leaks is high, so Trump is likely to be off-balance for the stretch run of the campaign.
Proposition No. 5: This probably won’t cost him the election — because Trump was already losing. It’s important to remember that Trump has been running behind Clinton for almost the whole campaign, and he had fallen into roughly a 5-percentage-point deficit after his poor performance in the first presidential debate — and before the latest round of scandals. That deficit is fairly hard to come back from even under the best of circumstances. To make it to the Oval Office now, Trump would have to make one of the greatest comebacks in political history while navigating a minefield of scandals and leaks, making his task even harder. But as far as FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts are concerned, the first debate still looks like the turning point in the race.