Anything can happen in November. At least that’s what we’re supposed to say. But is it really true?
Even in the middle of a global pandemic and after a historic impeachment process, the political environment hasn’t changed dramatically over the last year and a half. The coronavirus has crippled the economy and locked down the country, but it hasn’t been able to change voters’ minds.
With six months to go before Election Day, President Donald Trump should be regarded as at least a narrow underdog for reelection, the Senate majority is firmly in play, and Democrats are likely to maintain control of the House. That’s about how things looked six months ago, when the elections were a year away. And that’s good news for Democrats.
So what would need to happen for that outlook to change?
1. Trump needs to improve his standing
That will be difficult considering his job approval rating and his reelection standing have been remarkably consistent, and precarious, up to this point.
The president’s job approval rating hasn’t been higher than his disapproval rating since his first month in office, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and Trump has trailed Joe Biden in national polling for the last year, even before the former vice president essentially secured the Democratic nomination.
It’s clear that a majority of Americans have already decided whether or not they are going to support Trump, leaving the president with a narrow path to victory through the Electoral College with independent voters. Yet Trump trails Biden in key battleground states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona. And the president lost his most potent issue with conflicted voters when the economy collapsed as a consequence of the COVID-19 response.
2. Republicans need to raise more money
If Trump can’t improve his standing, Republicans down the ballot will need to outrun him in order to win, and that will take money to redefine the terms of the debate in their own congressional races.
While the president’s (and affiliated groups’) fundraising has been substantial, Republican fundraising in key Senate and House races has often lagged behind that of the Democrats. Now, it could be difficult to boost fundraising when more voters are either unemployed or experiencing a loss in wages to the point that a campaign contribution is not a priority. And even if GOP fundraising improves, it likely won’t be disproportionately higher than what Democrats are raising to make a difference.
Without an abundance of resources to run their own independent campaigns, down-ballot Republicans are trying to have it both ways. They are planning on a boost in GOP turnout because of Trump’s presence on the ballot (compared to 2018) without taking on any water for the president’s negatives with Democrats and independent voters.
3. Republicans need to change the conversation
Knowing that an election that is a referendum on Trump is not likely to go well, the GOP needs to present voters with a choice between the president and a less favorable alternative.
As Biden’s likely nomination all but took the threat of socialism completely off the table, Republicans have shifted to demonizing China. The GOP is not only trying to deflect blame for the coronavirus response on to China but also couple that country with individual Democratic candidates. It remains to be seen whether independent voters will believe that a former vice president who served in the Senate for 36 years is a tool of the Communist Party of China or that a former Navy commander and retired astronaut running for the Senate in Arizona is a Chinese asset, for example.
Before the coronavirus surfaced in the United States, Republicans planned to saddle congressional Democrats with the wasted time of a failed impeachment process. But impeachment feels like it was a century ago, and its resonance and relevance this fall is far from certain.
Absent change, advantage Democrats
Without one or more of those three dynamics, Biden is more likely than not to be elected president, Democrats will likely win control of the Senate and maintain (if not grow) their majority in the House. Without a stronger Trump at the top of the ballot, the Senate battleground will remain large enough for Democrats to win, and the president won’t be able to buoy lower-tier House GOP challengers running against well-funded Democratic incumbents.
The biggest unknown is turnout. It’s not a question of whether the public has a desire or enthusiasm to vote but whether people are able to, based on health, safety, and access because of the coronavirus. How and whether those factors disproportionately affect one party more than the other in key states could be consequential.
But overall, instead of falling back on the crutch of unforeseen events, it’s better to look at the data and identify trends, and leave it to the Republicans to prove that these elections are on a different trajectory.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an election analyst with CQ Roll Call.