How Trump Could Become a 'Political Black Hole' for the GOP

Mired in scandal, Trump’s fading chances to win the presidency could severely harm the Republican effort to retain their congressional majority.

Mike Segar / Reuters

ST. LOUIS–– Until this weekend, Republicans worried most about Donald Trump’s electoral ceiling. Now, with an avalanche of GOP officials renouncing his candidacy as the second presidential debate approaches, the more relevant question may be his electoral floor.

Since effectively clinching the nomination last May, Trump has struggled to ever expand his coalition much beyond 40 percent in surveys including Hillary Clinton and the two minor party candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. That left GOP strategists wondering whether he could push his support high enough to overtake Hillary Clinton, despite the widespread doubts confronting her.

But after a weak debate performance in the first presidential debate; a sustained argument with a former beauty pageant contestant in the days following; last week’s revelation that he might not have paid taxes for nearly two decades; Friday’s devastating disclosure of a lewd video in which Trump boasted of groping women in terms that suggested sexual assault; and Saturday’s unprecedented avalanche of party leaders repudiating his candidacy, Republicans are asking themselves not how high Trump might reach––but how low he could fall, and what that will mean for other GOP candidates on the ballot.

“He’s struggling to get above 40 percent,” said long-time GOP pollster Glen Bolger. “This could cost him a couple of points. He’s going to get 38 to 40 percent of the vote in swing areas, and swing states, and there’s a huge chasm between that and what Republicans running for Senate or House needs to win.”

From the start, Trump’s unconventional candidacy has been defined by passionate support from some voters and implacable resistance from others. Even during the Republican primary, Trump struggled to attract much more than 40 percent support until late in the contest-despite the visceral connection he established with his heavily blue-collar coalition. And even as he marched toward the Republican nomination, he consistently faced unfavorable ratings from about 60 percent of the general public. Those numbers haven’t improved since.

The latest controversy could reinforce this polarized dynamic. On Saturday after the video’s release, Trump was renounced by a remarkable procession of Republican leaders, ranging from Senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and John Thune to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and perhaps most strikingly former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. By Saturday night nearly one-third of the 54 Republican Senators had announced they were not supporting Trump. Probably so many Republican leaders have not repudiated their party’s presidential nominee in 24 hours since the day in June 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt’s supporters stampeded out of the convention re-nominating William Howard Taft to form the competing Bull Moose party.

Trump and his allies have already signaled that they hope to further energize his base by arguing that the wildfire besieging his campaign represented an effort by party elites and the media to stifle not only him but also the voters who propelled him to the nomination. But by all indications, Trump’s core support is too small to win the election. In the rolling poll average compiled by HuffPost Pollster, Trump’s support in the four-way race has not exceeded 40 percent at any point since May; in the average, Trump’s support now stands at 40.9 percent.

In the major media polls archived on that site, Trump’s support has exceeded 43 percent in only two surveys since September 1, and reached that level in just two more. Especially if support for Johnson and Stein erodes as the election nears––the usual pattern for third-party candidates––the eventual winner will almost certainly need to attract more than that to prevail.

Across party lines, almost all strategists agree the latest controversy would further constrain Trump’s ability to expand his support beyond his current limits. Trump has been stuck around 40 percent primarily because he is underperforming any previous Republican nominee among college-educated white voters. Though no Democratic presidential nominee has carried most of those voters in the history of modern polling dating back to 1952, almost all recent surveys have shown Clinton at worst running even among them, and usually leading Trump; last week’s Atlantic/Public Religion Research Institute survey, for instance, gave Clinton a 10 percentage point lead among them.

That, and other surveys, have shown Clinton not only on track for a record advantage among college-educated white women, but also running unusually close to Trump among college-educated white men, a constituency that has preferred the Republicans by margins of at least 17 percentage points in four of the past five elections.

Bolger, like many Republicans, has viewed those college-educated white men as the voters who might provide Trump his best opportunity to grow. Now, he believes the new revelations will reinforce the doubts many of them have expressed over whether Trump has the temperament, values and qualifications to succeed as president.

“If he was going to improve, which I don’t know if he was going to, it would have been with college educated white men and I think that’s gone too,” Bolger said. “Some of these college educated white men might have acted like that in their fraternity when they were 20. It doesn’t mean they act like that when they were 40.” (Trump was about sixty when he made the remarks.)

If college men may be the key to whether Trump can expand his reach, the group that determines whether his support substantially dips might be blue-collar white women. Despite Trump’s struggles with college-educated white women, in most polls he has maintained a double-digit edge with their non-college counterparts. (Trump led Clinton among those women by 17 percentage points in the latest Quinnipiac University national survey and 15 points in the NBC/Survey Monkey poll, though the new Atlantic/PRRI survey showed them about even.)

Long-time Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who has studied attitudes among working-class whites since his classic research on “Reagan Democrats” in Macomb County outside Detroit in the 1980s, says that while these working-class white women have long expressed unease with Trump’s behavior toward women, those concerns have been overshadowed “by their anger about the elite class that has not understood the struggles of working folks.”

But the latest revelations, he says, “makes gender identity really raw and powerful. I think this is really looks like a real abuse [situation] and the whole tone of it, I do think there will be an impact.”

The level of support Trump can maintain is important not only for his prospects against Clinton but the GOP’s hopes of maintaining control of the Senate, and even the House. Over the past generation, the share of voters splitting their ballots between the presidential and Congressional contests had steadily declined. In recent weeks, Republicans have been heartened by polls showing GOP Senate candidates defying that pattern by still leading or running step-for-step with their Democratic rivals in states where Trump has fallen behind, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina (where Trump has dipped slightly behind in the latest surveys).

But that doesn’t mean those candidates can survive any deficit. Which is why more GOP operatives expect Senate candidates to not only repudiate Trump but also to more explicitly argue that voters should maintain a GOP Senate as a check on a virtually inevitable Clinton presidency.

“I don’t think people are going to look at Hillary and suddenly anoint her as the best candidate ever just because Trump is so bad,” said Bolger. “But at the same time if Trump’s polling 38 percent in a state and a Republican needs 51 percent to win a Senate race, that’s a pretty wide gap. You’ve got to do whatever you can to avoid being sucked into a political black hole.”