The political outlook has changed pretty dramatically in recent months, though not in the way you might think. Even though U.S. coronavirus deaths now surpass the capacity of FedEx Field, these changes aren’t directly related to the pandemic. Nor do they stem directly from our current economic downturn, the most severe since the Great Depression.
Someone made the point to me this week that it is hard to imagine how a president could get reelected with unemployment approaching 15 percent six months before Election Day (It's worth noting that according to a Goldman Sachs research note published Tuesday, the jobless rate could peak as high as 25 percent.) My response was that at least in theory, it was difficult to see how a president could be in real danger with unemployment at 3.5 percent, as it was during the first two months of the year. But he was. And right now, with unemployment at 14.7 percent, President Trump's candidacy is hardly dead.
The reality is that the presidential race has changed remarkably little. Trump trails Joe Biden by about 4.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Indeed, the gap stood at 5 points, a 51 to 46 percent lead for the Democrat, in a CNN poll released Wednesday.
It's the change in congressional elections that’s shaking the political ground. Indeed, Democrats now face the tantalizing possibility of a trifecta—holding their majority in the House, while capturing a Senate majority and the presidency.
Fourteen months ago, it was still plausible that the GOP could claw back its 18-seat deficit in the House (after the Republican victory in Tuesday’s special election in California’s 25th Congressional District, it now stands at 17 seats).
Dave Wasserman, the House editor at The Cook Political Report, now puts the chances of Republicans suffering a net loss in House seats about the same as them gaining any seats. Thus, the chances of the GOP scoring a net gain of 17 seats looks extremely improbable, whether we look at it race-by-race or at the generic congressional ballot, which Democrats lead by 7 points in the RealClearPolitics average and 8 points in FiveThirtyEight’s average.
In the Senate though, things have shifted from, in my mind, just a one-in-three chance that Democrats would capture a Senate majority to basically a 50-50 proposition. And this is not primarily a function of the coronavirus, nor even much about Trump at all.
Certainly, his high disapproval ratings among many college-educated, suburban voters is not helping some of his party’s incumbents in purple states. But this was the case long before the virus hit and the economy went off a cliff. It was apparent early last year that Martha McSally in Arizona and Cory Gardner in Colorado were both destined for very difficult races, as was Maine’s Susan Collins and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis. But the political misfortunes of appointed Georgia incumbent Kelly Loeffler were not triggered by a virus, but by allegations of improper investment practices. Gov. Steve Bullock’s last-minute challenge to incumbent Steve Daines in Montana had nothing to do with any of this either.
Given that Democratic incumbent Doug Jones’s reelection hopes appear completely futile, Democrats had to run the table and beat McSally, Gardner, Collins, and Tillis to win a Senate majority—and that was predicated on their party winning the White House as well; otherwise, they would have to unseat yet another Republican.
But adding Loeffler and Daines gives Democrats a couple of other paths to a majority. Now, new Republican polling shows the elected incumbent in Georgia, David Perdue, in a difficult race. The open Kansas seat is looking very problematic with a filing deadline now just two weeks away. Even challenges to Sens. Joni Ernst, Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Dan Sullivan are drawing attention.
While it is still a bit more likely than not that Republicans hold onto either the White House or the Senate, the chances of Democrats scoring a trifecta is at least one-in-three and going up. Very roughly speaking, both the presidential race and the Senate are 50-50 bets, while the odds for Democrats holding the House are very high and rising.
Keep in mind that the presidential and Senate outcomes are not independent of one another. Given the assortment of purple states with key Senate races, a Trump win would probably give Republicans at least a 60 percent chance of holding the Senate, while a Biden win would indicate at least a 60 percent chance for Democrats to capture it. If certain groups are turning out disproportionately strong enough to help a presidential candidate or, conversely, not showing up enough in sufficient quantities to tip the balance, that can move really close races. That's especially true if the whole political environment seems to be shifting at once, as happened in 2008, or the issue priorities begin to move among large swaths of voters.
Readers of this column don’t need to be reminded of the implications of a sweep. Just look at where Republicans were in 2017 and 2018 when they possessed all three levers of government and held sway over judicial nominations and policy. As Joe Biden might say, it is a “big deal.”