Much of the thinking about the outcome of next Tuesday’s election has been binary: Does Joe Biden hang onto his lead in the polls and win, or can President Trump mount a successful comeback, threading the same needle that enabled him to win 30 states with 306 Electoral College votes last time? Another binary question: Will Republicans keep their Senate losses down to just a seat or two, remaining at 51 or 52 seats, or will Democrats score a net gain of three or four seats, emerging with the barest of majorities?
But it is hard to look closely at the presidential election and not see that, given how little time is left, the odds of a big Biden win are higher than those of a Trump come-from-behind victory. Which brings us to the growing body of evidence on the congressional-district and statewide level showing that Trump’s political problems are metastasizing and having a strong drag on down-ballot Republicans. That extends from the Senate to the House and even down to the state-legislative level, with serious congressional and legislative redistricting implications. A party never wants to have a bad election, but a big loss in a year ending in a zero is the defeat that keeps on defeating, as Democrats painfully learned after their massive 2010 losses, which reverberated for the rest of the decade.
It increasingly looks like a foregone conclusion that the GOP Senate majority is soon to be history. Nine Republican seats are in grave danger, starting with those of Sens. Martha McSally (Arizona), Cory Gardner (Colorado), and Thom Tillis (North Carolina), the real underdogs. They’re followed by Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Steve Daines (Montana), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and both Georgia seats, all of which are at best even-money races. There is still an open seat in Kansas that is very close, and Sen. Dan Sullivan has a narrow lead in Alaska. Anyone who was around for Election Night 1980, when Democrats lost their first Senate seat, that of Birch Bayh (Indiana), at 6:30 p.m., then basically lost a Senate seat every 30 minutes for the next six hours, can understand the cascading effect that can occur under certain conditions.
Many Republicans believe (and many Democrats fear) that Trump will again pull a victory from the jaws of defeat—that he possesses some mystical political power. This ignores an alternative theory: that the 2016 election outcome was as much about Hillary Clinton as it was about Trump, and that Democrats nominating someone whose favorable-unfavorable ratings are not underwater is by itself yielding a different outcome.
My guess is that Trump supporters will look back wistfully at six assumptions that gave them hope, only to turn out to be faulty. The first was that the economic boom, which from September 2019 through February of this year gave the U.S. six consecutive months of 50-year-low unemployment, would continue and power the president through to reelection.
The second was that Democrats would nominate either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. The third was that the coronavirus would turn out to be less serious than some had warned, or that it would be brought under control with a surging economy by the third quarter, which would propel the president to victory.
The fourth was that the Trump campaign’s decision to build a large field operation would allow it to identify and mobilize Trump supporters in battleground states who looked, acted, talked, and believed the same as those who gave him his victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin four years ago.
It was a sound decision, but it was based on a fifth assumption: that fundraising would continue to surge. Instead, it slumped in the latter half of the summer after the president's poll numbers took such a beating in June and July. The money was gone, with insufficient new funds coming in to provide the air cover that the ground game needed.
According to Federal Election Commission reports covering until the end of September, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee had $61 million in cash on hand, while the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee had $177 million. On Friday, Advertising Analytics reported the Biden campaign had aired $576 million in television advertising, compared to $341 million for the Trump campaign. Did anyone ever think they would see a Republican president outraised and outgunned by a Democratic challenger whose campaign hardly had two quarters to rub together just seven months ago? That is a sign that something was terribly amiss.
The last erroneous assumption was that Biden was senile or had dementia and the debates would expose it for all the world to see. Anyone who covered Biden trooping around Iowa, or who watched the Democratic debates or his convention acceptance speech, could have told them that while he often goes off script, it was nothing new. I would chalk it up to wishful thinking.
This election is going to a very different place than many expected, and it may turn out for Republicans to be even worse than they fear.