With Tension Draining Out of the Presidential Race, Will GOP Voters Stay Home?

Charlie Cook New
October 20, 2020

The drama and uncertainty that seems to have leaked out of the presidential race has found its way into the fight for control of the U.S. Senate. If you are into either electoral politics or congressional policy, the range of possible outcomes in next month’s elections is dizzying. At one end of the spectrum, we could plausibly see Republicans hold their losses to just one or two seats, coming out with a bare majority of 51 or 52 seats. On the other end, given that Republicans face 12 competitive races to only two for Democrats, an electoral wipeout for the GOP is very much on the table.

Contrast that to the presidential race, where something pretty major would have to happen to bring President Trump up to an even competitive position. The new NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll puts Joe Biden 12 points ahead of Trump, 54 to 42 percent, not much different from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which puts Biden’s lead at 11 points, 53 to 42 percent.

At this point four years ago, Hillary Clinton was about 5 points ahead and in the last three weeks never had a lead of more than 7 points in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. Biden is running 9 points ahead of Trump in the RCP average, 52 to 42 percent (difference due to rounding); 11 points in FiveThirtyEight, 52 to 42 percent (again rounding); and 8 points in the Economist’s model that’s driven primarily, not exclusively, by polling, 54 to 46 percent.

In the trifecta of states that put Trump over the top in 2016—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—Biden’s lead is generally in the 6-to-9-point range. Those three states, when combined with the states that Hillary Clinton carried, would get the former vice president to 278 electoral votes—eight more than necessary to win. Biden has smaller leads in the other three top battleground states of Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, as well as Nebraska’s 2nd District.

To make matters worse for the president, as of Thursday night, the University of Florida’s U.S. Elections Project counts 16 million votes already cast. So we should probably look beyond the presidential race for dramatic tension.

It is exceedingly unlikely that Democrat incumbent Doug Jones of Alabama will be able to win a full term in a presidential election year. But Gary Peters, the only other Democrat in Republicans’ sights, looks like a relatively safe bet to keep his seat. Conversely, Republicans have two incumbents that are in The Cook Political Report’s Lean Democratic column, Martha McSally of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Beyond that, there are seven—count ‘em, seven—GOP seats rated as Toss-Ups: those held by Georgians Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Susan Collins in Maine, Steve Daines in Montana, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

Three more GOP seats are in the Lean Republican column, which means incumbents Dan Sullivan of Alaska and John Cornyn of Texas can’t rest easy. Nor can Rep. Roger Marshall, who’s running for the open, Republican-held seat in Kansas. That contest has proven to be shockingly close, and may be closer to a Toss-Up.

Even when Senate Republicans seemed to get a big break—the sex scandal ensnaring Cal Cunningham, the Democratic challenger to Tillis—it’s only helped them around the margins. That’s further evidence that Americans are increasingly voting based on the color of the jersey than the name on the back.

A useful reminder: according to Pew Research Center, in 122 of 139 Senate contests held since 2012, the party of the presidential candidate carrying that state most recently won the Senate seat. Moreover, since 1998, the final Toss-Up Senate races broke in the same direction about 70 percent of the time. Bottom line: it’s not unrealistic to think that Republicans will suffer net losses as high as four, five, six or more seats if things get really bad. The policy implications of Democrats holding 53 or 54 seats, especially if they jettison the filibuster, are gigantic.

Earlier in the week, this column suggested that Republican House losses could reach double digits. But consider also that 80 percent of state House seats are on the ballot this year. If a party is ever going to have a bad election, having one in a year ending in zero is the worst of all kinds because that year leads into congressional and state-legislative redistricting.

The key is that if Trump continues to trail Biden badly and be significantly outspent, do disappointed Republicans stay home, with dramatic downballot implications from the Senate to congressional seats and into state-legislative chambers as well?

Ironically, one thing that could have helped galvanize GOP voters would have been if there were a little more drama in Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation fight. At this point, the outcome is a foregone conclusion and is somewhat less riveting than the Brett Kavanaugh SCOTUS fight of two years ago. The drama is still in this election though; it just happens to be more in the fight for the Senate than the one for the Oval Office. 

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on October 16, 2020