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Would Republicans Be Better Off If Clinton Were President?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hey, everybody! It’s Slack chat time!

We’re in the middle of another media cycle involving questions about the positioning of congressional Republicans vis-a-vis Trump. Basically, after his press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, people are asking why the GOP doesn’t do more to restrain Trump. So … here’s the question for today:

If you’re an elected Republican serving in Congress, is the Trump presidency worth it to you? You get wins on policy right now but you’re staring down likely losses in 2018 and maybe beyond. OR would you rather we have a President Hillary Clinton right now? You’re presumably not getting the policy outcomes you want but would likely be looking forward to gains in 2018 and perhaps 2020.

(We’re also asking this from the Democrats’ POV, but let’s start with Republicans.)

FWIW, I’ve gone back and forth on this in my head since we decided on this topic yesterday. At first I thought the answer was obvious. Now …

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I would rather have a President Hillary Clinton.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): #actually

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’d rather have Trump.

natesilver: I don’t have enough information to answer the question.

micah: OMG

natesilver: Am I in a swing district?

micah: You’re the collective congressional GOP.

clare.malone: Hmm.

Now I’m waffling.

micah: So, my first thought was that the answer was OBVIOUSLY Trump.

natesilver: Just to complicate things … for me, the answer to this question is narrower if you’re asking me as a member of Congress as opposed to, say, a Democratic or Republican voter.

clare.malone: It depends on what you think the ultimate goal of Congress is.

To get elected again, to live another day?

Or, to accomplish something ideological?

natesilver: If you’re a member of Congress, you’re probably very concerned about re-election. And clearly you have much safer chances of re-election as a swing-seat Republican under Clinton than under Trump.

clare.malone: So. What’s the ultimate goal of a party’s caucus in Congress?

micah: OK, if it’s ideological/policy, it’s 100 percent Trump, right? The Supreme Court alone suggests that. Or, look at Trump’s effect on the judiciary more generally:

clare.malone: Right.

But if it’s about getting re-elected, then they want Clinton.

So I guess I don’t know the answer because I don’t know the goal of the Republican congressional caucus.

nrakich: You guys aren’t looking at the big picture! It’s not just Congress. State governments are important too — maybe even more important than the federal government, since it’s where much of the policy that affects people’s lives is made.

As you’ve written, Clare, the Obama years really weren’t too shabby for Republicans. They earned a stranglehold on 26 state-government trifectas (full control of the governorship and state legislature) and have used them to pass stricter laws on abortion, labor, etc. than they would have in Congress.

And if we’re focusing on Congress, that state government control is going to let the GOP continue to draw congressional district lines in 2021 unless something changes.

The Trump presidency threatens to effect that change.

natesilver: Can I ask for a redirect, Micah? Maybe we should be saying, “Are Republicans better off with Trump than with Clinton?”

And obviously there are a lot of subheadings under “Republican.”

micah: Yeah, but I don’t want to pick one subheading because then the answer is obvious.

Let’s disentangle all the subheadings!

natesilver: Ezra Klein argued recently that it was obvious that Republicans had made a good bet to stand behind Trump in 2016, because it had paid off with the SCOTUS picks. But I think it’s way too early to conclude that.

nrakich: I agree.

micah: This is actually kinda making my brain hurt …

I think Ezra is right …


micah: In the short term, it’s paid off huge. And likely in the long term with the Supreme Court.

But if Trump sparks a wave of progressive activism — that’s obviously bad for the GOP.

But but politics always goes in cycles — back and forth, back and forth. From Clare’s piece:

So if your argument is that a backlash makes winning not worth it, then winning would never be worth it.

clare.malone: Why is it too early to conclude that, Nate? Because he might fuck up the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation?

natesilver: Because what if Republicans lose elections for the next 20 years as a result of a backlash to Trump? And, also, the public turns against every policy Trump once liked? ICE is abolished and single-payer medicine is established.

nrakich: That ^^

I also think Supreme Court picks are overrated. In the long run, they balance out — the next Democratic president will probably get a couple too. And it’s unpredictable what a justice does once he or she joins the court. Plenty of Republican-appointed justices have turned more liberal over the years.

micah: If there’s a backlash to Trump, eventually there will be a backlash to that backlash, no?

nrakich: If I were congressional Republicans/Republican voters/Republican squirrels/whatever, I would also be worried about Trump’s long-term effect on Hispanic voters.

clare.malone: I don’t know if I agree on that Supreme Court point, Nathaniel. This conservative majority could be a pretty powerful influence on judicial policy for decades. But yes, I do think it’s right to look at how growing demographic groups react to a political party.

But what are our parameters now?

micah: Republican squirrels.

clare.malone: jek;atw’ljrt

micah: Inequality these days is nuts.


nrakich: 🐿

(Yes, I know that’s a chipmunk)

natesilver: Here’s how I’d put it: There is almost always a backlash, which the party pays in the form of (1) tending to lose seats in Congress, and (1b) in state government and (2) some degree of thermostatic movement of public opinion against them, e.g. the public actually becomes more liberal when conservatives have been in power for a while and vice versa.

Those are BIG consequences so the question is — how much do you get out of it?

micah: A lot. I hate to keep going back to the Supreme Court, but …

nrakich: Probably not as much as they’d be able to with a different Republican president.

Marco Rubio could still win the primary, guys.

micah: #2020

natesilver: Hmm. So far, the GOP has gotten (i) a tax bill; (ii) 2 Supreme Court picks; (iii) lots of aggressive enforcement actions on immigration; (iv) lots of actions to sabotage Obamacare; (v) lots of … eccentric foreign policy behavior that they might not like; (vi) a trade war that they probably don’t want.

clare.malone: So they got three things they wanted, on average (if you say they wanted half measures on a couple things Trump went full throttle on).

That’s not so bad.

nrakich: But they also got some not-so-great stuff, even on policy.

micah: If you think Trump has been a mixed bag in terms of delivering on policy and ideological goals, then the answer is clearly President Clinton?

nrakich: Right.

micah: IDK, I can’t get past SCOTUS.

natesilver: I’m not saying it’s nothing. It’s quite a bit! But part of it is that they aren’t necessarily likely to get a whole lot more — or at least not a lot more of the stuff they like.

Democrats may or may not win a chamber of Congress — but even if they don’t, the GOP majorities are likely to be reduced down to a bare minimum.

micah: Republicans control all three branches of government, most states, etc. — I’m just very resistant to any argument that they’d rather the world look any other way than it currently does.

nrakich: I do think this question is incomplete without knowing how 2018 turns out.

natesilver: And 2020.

micah: Guys.

natesilver: And 2022.

micah: You are all basically saying, “We can’t answer this question until it’s answered for us.”


micah: You agreed to the topic!

clare.malone: I’m stressssssed.

nrakich: I’m so sorry, guys. (I was the one who had the idea for this Slack chat topic, dear reader.)

clare.malone: lol, it’s fine. But now I know Rakich is a chaos monkey.

nrakich: Chaos squirrel.

clare.malone: I mean muppet.

natesilver: Let’s take what’s maybe an easier case. Let’s say Republicans lose in a wave election in November — they lose, say, 45 House seats, plus lose the Senate. Then Trump also loses in 2020 and they lose another 5 Senate seats or so.

Is it worth it then?

micah: I think the answer to that question is … yes.

natesilver: Yeah, I think that’s wrong, Micah.

clare.malone: Yeah, that would be bad.

The Senate loss is a little far out, though.

natesilver: Democrats will just undo the GOP’s tax policy.

nrakich: Micah, you think Republicans would take a teensy list of policy priorities in exchange for undoing all the electoral progress they’ve made for the last eight years?

micah: First, I don’t think it’s a given that the Democrats reverse that tax bill.

Second, I think that GOP progress was always fleeting, Nathaniel. See thermostatic point above.

You’re basically telling me that we return to a 2009ish-type government, but that the Supreme Court is conservative for at least a generation or so.

If I’m subscribing to the false idea that these elected officials and their voters want to win elections to achieve policy/ideological outcomes — which I am for this convo even though it’s not really right — then that lasting conservative majority on the Supreme Court is incredibly valuable because it’s really the only branch of government that doesn’t sorta inherently swing back and forth.

Control of the White House and Congress is always temporary, so I’m not super fussed about losing the gains I’ve made.

nrakich: But the alternative under President Clinton is that you lock in Republican control of the House for probably 10 more years and the Senate for perhaps a generation.

micah: I don’t think we know that.

natesilver: Are you reading too many liberal hot takes about the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court has already been conservative for many years. What would give the Democrats the best chance to make it not conservative is to have a majority of senators *and* the presidency.

micah: I haven’t been reading any takes — I just got back from vacation.

Now it’ll be MORE conservative!

natesilver: Would Clinton have gotten her justice appointed in a 52-48 Republican Senate?

micah: Probably not?

clare.malone: A more moderate one, yes.

micah: Wouldn’t she have nominated Merrick Garland?

clare.malone: Maybe, but maybe not.

micah: I have a hard time imagining Republicans confirming any Clinton nominee.

clare.malone: Clinton was never going to be able to nominate a Ginsburg type from the start.

natesilver: In FiveThirtyEight canon, she would have gotten Garland appointed on Earth 2, but in exchange for a bunch of Republicans being appointed to the cabinet.

But here’s the thing. With Trump in power, Democrats are probably going to end up with somewhere between 47-52 Senate seats after this year. Obviously a reasonably wide range there and I think they’re underdogs to take the Senate, although it’s competitive.

By comparison, though, if Clinton were president, where would Democrats end up? I haven’t done the math in detail, but I’d guess somewhere in the range of like 39-45 senators. They’d be in a lot of trouble, as Nathaniel said.

And they wouldn’t have had Doug Jones win that race in Alabama (in part because there would have been nothing to appoint Jeff Sessions to.)

nrakich: Yeah, in the Senate, Democrats are way overexposed in 2018 — a bad cycle for them could lead to the loss of 8+ Senate seats. There are 31 red states and 19 blue states in the U.S. — that means that the GOP “should” have 62 senators. If that scenario comes to pass, partisan gravity is going to make it very hard for Democrats to get back to a majority until party coalitions change, which can take decades.

natesilver: If you’re down to, say, 42 senators, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting a liberal Supreme Court nominee for the foreseeable future, no matter who is president.

micah: OK, so yeah, let’s take this full on from the Democrats’ perspective: Would you rather have a President Clinton?

clare.malone: I think yes, you’d rather have Clinton.

micah: Couldn’t Clinton have locked in a moderate court, though?

clare.malone: Not necessarily, Micah.

nrakich: I’ve been an electoral hipster on this topic for a while. Back in 2015, I wrote a semi-tongue-in-cheek article arguing that Democrats should cede the 2016 election to Republicans because Democrats need to rebuild their bench on the state level.

I mean, this is all hypothetical. But under a President Clinton, Republicans would win most of the governorships and state legislatures this year and in 2020. That would allow them to draw Republican-friendly House maps for all of the 2020s.

clare.malone: What if she wins two terms and Ginsburg retires when Democrats are in a better place in the Senate?

nrakich: It’s very hard for a party to hold the White House for four consecutive terms.

natesilver: There’s probably no universe in which Democrats would ever have had both a Senate majority and a President Hillary Clinton.

She’d have started out at 48, lost a bunch this year.

Then maybe you gain a couple back in 2020, which isn’t a bad map for Democrats.

But then you’re back in 2022 and midterms don’t usually go well for the president’s party.

nrakich: What do we think Clinton’s approval numbers would look like if she had won? My guess is they’d be pretty close to Trump’s right now. She’d have no policy wins to show off (since Republicans would control Congress), and those Republicans in Congress would be stirring the pot over her emails and other stuff, presumably.

micah: My first thought on this was … If you’re a progressive, and you care about an equitable society, the environment, health outcomes, etc. — I’m not sure there’s any argument that you’d prefer President Trump to President Clinton.

The only counter to that is if Trump sparks a generational counterswing — in which the next 5-8 years are bad for you, but the next 30 are good as a result.

natesilver: But presidencies always spark a backlash. That’s a given, or at least pretty close to it. The questions are (i) how soon the backlash comes, (ii) how big it is, and (iii) what Republicans accomplish before the backlash.

micah: That’s my point, Nate. I think it’s only “worth it” for Democrats if the backlash is historically huge.

natesilver: See, I disagree, because I think Trump’s accomplishments have been on the modest side.

clare.malone: One good thing for Democrats under Trump is the new bench that they seem to be developing.

natesilver: I mean, the party was sort of running on fumes.

clare.malone: In the long run, improving their prospects on the state level might serve them well. I’m not sure that would have happened under Clinton. They might have continued to paper over the state losses under Obama.

nrakich: Exactly, Clare. After a President Clinton, what would have come next? They’d be out of gas, and then you’d have a President Trump (or similar) in 2020/2024 anyway, plus you’d have missed your window to affect redistricting.

natesilver: Although — one thing we’re neglecting to mention here is that there’s a lot of damage Trump could do, e.g. to America’s international image, that isn’t really a *partisan* concern per se.

micah: That’s what I was typing!

It’s not just “accomplishments.”

It’s the whole Trump effect.

The illiberal stuff.

natesilver: But again, that, too, could spark a long-term backlash.

clare.malone: Yeah, the Trump reflection on the country in the eyes of the world is sort of a known unknown.

How much is it going to screw the country long term?

natesilver: And also, having a President Clinton (as Rakich was getting at) may have led to a Trump-type Republican getting elected in 2020, only with much bigger majorities in Congress.

clare.malone: Other countries might not trust our word on international treaties we want to make, etc., etc.

nrakich: America’s image bounced back pretty well from the Bush years, right? Although I think this is another level than that.

clare.malone: I dunno re Bush.

micah: Yeah, opinion of the U.S. (and the American president) shot up after Bush — and has dropped back down under Trump:

natesilver: Yeah, I don’t think this is comparable to Bush.

micah: OK, what if Trump leaves America 20 percent less democratic (small d)?

natesilver: Although, I also wonder if our allies sort of recognize that Trump’s an outlier instead of the permanent state of affairs.

nrakich: True, but I also wonder if he confirms what they secretly thought about the U.S.

clare.malone: Why would they not assume that another Republican president would now take policy positions more like Trump’s because that’s what Republican voters want?

nrakich: But then again, European allies are also dealing with their own Trump-like, anti-immigrant, populist figures.

micah: Yeah, it would be a mistake to think of Trump as an outlier.

natesilver: What if Trump sparks a backlash to populism in Western Europe because people associate populism with Trump?

micah: I sorta buy that.

Well, no … I don’t.

natesilver: There’s already a little bit of evidence of that. Populist candidates generally underperformed their polls in Western Europe in 2017. Eastern/Central Europe is a different story, it’s very important to say.

micah: To start to wrap this up … clearly most congressional Republicans are still happy with the tradeoff, no? (To shift the convo from what we think to what they think.)

nrakich: … are they?

Not to be a broken record, but you keep hearing about how, off the record, lots of Republicans say they’re fed up with Trump.

natesilver: Given how many congressional Republicans retired, the prima-facie evidence might be “no.”

nrakich: I bet plenty of them would take a President Clinton right now so they could try over again in 2020 with Mike Pence or someone more palatable to them. Plus, congressional Republicans were good at being the opposition party under Obama. They could have kept going with that. It was once they started needing to govern (i.e., with health care) that they sorta fell apart.

micah: If that were true, wouldn’t they be more forcefully rebuking/restraining Trump?

clare.malone: Maybe they’re waiting for the midterms to be over.

nrakich: I don’t think they would be, because they’re afraid of getting Sanforded.

If they’re ever going to break with Trump publicly (barring a major Mueller development), it would be in the time between this year’s primaries and this year’s general election. So I guess it’s too early to tell.

natesilver: Micah, I don’t think that necessarily follows. One thing about being a Republican in Congress is that it’s politically hard to oppose Trump, even if you think he’s terrible for your party and the country in the long term. Maybe that’s why so many of them are retiring.

micah: That’s partly true, but I also think much of the media is projecting when they imagine all congressional Republicans hate Trump.

They didn’t all retire, after all.

natesilver: And you know what really wouldn’t be fun? Having the same dilemma if you’d lost control of Congress anyway, which is probably more likely than not this fall.

(Of course, this is a bit self-fulfilling; one reason the GOP is favored to lose the House is because of all the retirements.)

micah: OK, final thoughts?

nrakich: This is how I see it:

Under President Trump, Democrats have a good chance to win back the House in the short term and be competitive in it throughout the 2020s (because of redistricting). In the Senate, they will probably maintain their small deficit in the short term but remain competitive in the long term. State governments are likewise competitive again for a decade or so. In the Supreme Court, a conservative majority is achieved and lasts an indeterminate amount of time.

Under President Clinton, Republicans would have kept/augmented their House majorities this year and drawn district lines to make it very hard for Democrats to win the House again until 2032. In the Senate, they would blow Democrats into oblivion with the bad Senate map in 2018, and the Senate wouldn’t be competitive again for several years either. In the states, Republicans likewise lock in control for another 10 years. And in the Supreme Court, Democrats get a liberal-to-moderate court for an indeterminate amount of time.

Your mileage may vary, quite a bit, for how to weight those. But I personally think the Clinton presidency one is the better scenario for Republicans, and the Trump presidency is the better scenario for Democrats.

I will now go collect my contrarian card at the front desk.

natesilver: I wouldn’t go that far. I mean — the default, certainly, is that you’d rather win the presidency than lose it. I do think, though, that it’s far from obvious that Republicans are better off with Trump and that people who think it’s obvious don’t have enough of a long-term view.

micah: I think it’s obvious.

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.