Understandably, if you are a Republican concerned about the impact of Trump on your Congressional majorities your worries are valid. But, to date, there are few if any polls that indicate Trump is a drag on down-ballot Republicans.
Let’s take a look at polling in some of the most competitive Senate races in the country. In Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson started out his race as an underdog and that has not changed. Neither has the polling. In January Marquette University had Feingold up by double-digits. Their last poll, taken in the run-up to the Wisconsin primary, had Johnson within 4 points.
But one case is an isolated incident, right? Well, let’s also look at New Hampshire. At the start of the year, Kelly Ayotte had a lead from anywhere from 1 to 10 points. Since the New Year, Ayotte has led in the polls from anywhere between 1 and 7 points.
Wisconsin and New Hampshire are fairly white states and since Trump’s appeal is particularly strong among white voters that must be a factor. Not so much. In North Carolina’s Senate race, Richard Burr’s average lead is largely unchanged from the start of the year (outlier polls included or not).
Since the 2004 election it has largely been assumed by many pollsters and analysts that as the Presidential race goes so go many down-ballot contests. The links between partisanship and voting are clear as is the significant drop-off in split-ticket voting.
This assumption has always suffered from one flaw though, it is based on self reported voting habits of voters. We all know how accurate self-reported voting habits can be. In 2013 the Census Bureau reported that more blacks self-reported voted than whites as a percentage of their respective shares of the US population. Um, except that this would mean that more blacks would have had to vote than there were registered black voters in 2012.
Already, we have seen just how weak the connection is between voting at the top of the ticket and the bottom. In a previous column, I noted how outsider candidates have been unable to harness the power of Trump voters to their benefit. Well, that certainly has not changed and it could indicate for the first time that voters are not letting partisanship be the end all to guide their actions.
One recent race in particular stands out to show this phenomenon in detail. The 9th CD GOP Primary pitted longtime Congressman Bill Shuster against arch conservative Art Halvorson. You would think if ideology or outsider status was guiding voter habits Trump’s wins would coincide somewhat with Halvorson’s. None of that happened.
Instead, 5 of the 10 counties Shuster won gave Trump some of his biggest margins in the state. These counties-Huntington, Somerset, Washington, Fayette and Greene- are downscale white and Trump country. By contrast, the counties Halvorson won-Franklin, Fulton, Indiana, Blair and Bedford- are more upscale and would appear more likely to go with an establishment figure like Shuster. Well, no.
This kind of election frustrates the pundits and analysts because it makes current election models appear less accurate and less likely to be correct. For so long the correlation between top of the ticket results and down-ballot races has been clear.
Recently, there have been many election outliers to top of the ticket races swinging down-ballot contests. The 2012 election was notable because it had several. In Montana, a state Romney carried by 14 percent, Bill Tester won reelection by 4 percent. In North Dakota, a state Romney carried by 20 percent, Heidi Heitkamp won by 1 percent. West Virginia was even more notable because Obama did not win a single county in the state and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin won by 24 percent. Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri won by 15 percent in a state Romney won by double-digits. Republican Dean Heller won a squeaker in Nevada while Obama was winning the state by 6 percent.
These results were largely ignored because they contradicted the connection between top of the ticket decisions deciding all. After GOP wins in 2014 in mostly red states (minus Iowa and Colorado), it was assumed these 2012 results were largely outliers.
Except they seemed to be more prophetic than not. In three of the Romney states Democratic Senate candidates ran in they disavowed their party’s President and ran on bipartisan credentials. They ran on the interests of their states and never directly tied themselves to ideology, unlike many of their now former Democratic colleagues defeated last cycle.
In these results we can see perhaps the precursor to 2016. This election has opened up the deep class, ideological and racial divides in BOTH parties. How else can one explain the rise of a socialistic Senator from Vermont challenging the Clinton Machine and the Speaker of the House on national TV saying he is “not there yet” in endorsing his party’s nominee for President?
Ironically, as more and more Americans believe the system has become too ideological and partisan we are seeing parts of both parties coalitions splitting from the ranks and partisanship finally not being the end all-be all. The free-market, pro-reform, pro-business wing of the party is running away from Trump. Constitutional conservatives are doing the same. Meanwhile, the blue-collar wing of the party is embracing Trump as their hero (never-mind he has never been poor).
Likewise, on the Democratic side the young, up and coming wing of the party composed of college educated Millennials and upscale, white suburbanites, is divorcing itself from a party they view as too moderate and business friendly.
Add it all up and the assumption that Trump equals a death knell for down-ticket Republicans is patently absurd. American politics has entered uncharted territory and nobody knows what will happen. For the first time in a generation, not seen since Watergate, both parties political establishments are losing control and watching their carefully crafted coalitions splinter and fracture. Either Trump and Clinton will win and the top of the ticket results may influence some down-ballot races but the results cannot change the fact both parties are struggling to adapt to the demands of a 21st century electorate hungry for change.