What We Should Glean from Today’s Polls

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I think there are two big takeaways and one big point going forward that we can draw from today’s polls, apart from the obvious fact that Hillary Clinton has for now opened up a significant lead over Donald Trump.

First, Clinton got a sizable bounce out of her convention. That bounce appears not only to be persisting but actually growing. That’s a big deal. It’s still too soon to say we’re in the post-convention period. I’d say we need about a week more to be there. But historically speaking where the polls are a week or two out of the conventions tends to remain fairly stable. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to really change the game. The debates are the big exception. But for all frenzy, there have been few cases where the presidential debates have really reset the race. People say a lot that three months is a long time, that polls are only a snap shot of the race as it stands today. All true. But we’re coming up on the phase of the campaign where polls really start to matter and become much more predictive of the outcome.

Second, it’s not just a Clinton bounce. Trump’s support appears to have eroded significantly. What counts as ‘significantly’ or ‘a lot’ is relative of course. We’re only talking a few percentage points. But national elections, especially in this hyper-partisan era, play out in a highly constrained band. And Trump has fallen below what I and I suspect most other observers consider a key benchmark, 40%.

This is the trend line since July 1st …

Despite two third party candidates polling non-trivial numbers, this is still basically a two candidate race. A major party candidate pulling under 40% is essentially unheard of in the modern era. At least for the moment Trump seems to have broken through what we might call the partisan floor of contemporary American politics. We shouldn’t assume he’ll stay there. But it’s a critical threshold and an extremely dangerous place to start the Fall campaign.

The last point is where this goes from here. Of course, we don’t know. But the events of the last couple days suggest the institutional GOP, the top elected officials, stakeholders, funders and so forth are at something of a breaking point with Trump. Unfortunately they don’t have any clear place to break to.

There’s a lot of wishful thinking chatter about Trump dropping out of the race or Republicans replacing him. But that’s just stunned silly talk by panicked people. Republicans cannot replace Trump. For all intents and purposes he owns the nomination as his personal property. Sure, Trump could surprise us all and up and drop out of the race. But there’s really nothing in his history or personality that makes that seem likely. Especially not now that he seems to be raising a pretty nice pot of money to use in the campaign.

If Trump continues at a high single digit deficit, he’s running at a level where the Republican Senate is likely done for and even the Republican House – all but unthinkable – could be in danger. The taint of Trumpism is spread all over the GOP. And of course virtually all elected Republicans continue to support his candidacy, even if that support seems increasingly nominal.

The obvious answer seems to be to simply cut ties. They can’t take away the nomination. But they can make it vacant by departing en masse and making it an empty shell. Only it’s not nearly that easy. Even if we assume that de-endorsing members of Congress that could really separate themselves from Trump in voters’ eyes (a questionable assumption), there’s still a very big part of the GOP that is fiercely pro-Trump. If you’re a Kelly Ayotte for instance running hard against Trump, harshly disassociating yourself from him, that means she’s basically at war with his supporters. Let’s assume a very low estimate of 25% of Republicans in the pro-Trump camp, though all the evidence suggests the number is much higher. She’d be running with the anti-Trump Republicans but also need really all of the votes of the pro-Trump Republicans whose candidate she’s trying to make lose. Some voters can take a detached and highly clinical and pragmatic approach to voting and bridge that divide. But not many. For most it’s just a bridge too far.

In essence, abandoning Trump amounts to kicking off 50 separate civil wars within the Republican party, right in the stretch when parties need to be uniting all their partisans and trying to grab as many loosely affiliated independents and cross-over voters as possible. The kind of scenario we’re talking about here is one where you run a very real chance at massive underperformance in partisan voting, which of course means that candidate will lose and lose badly.

We shouldn’t expect the numbers will remain in such an extreme position for the next three months. But the point is that Republican elected officials have no good option for how to run the Fall campaign with an out-of-control and unpopular Trump at the top of the ticket.

In a conventional campaign, a losing candidate will tacitly, if disconsolately, let party members run away from his or her candidacy. Think Walter Mondale in 1984 or George Bush in 1992. It’s mortifying but they care about the party’s future too. But that is almost impossible to imagine with Trump. It’s all about him. Everything is about dominance. Being tossed overboard is the ultimate humiliation and one he can never accept. We’ve already seen that the heightened criticism from Ryan and McCain has led him to preemptively go to war with them. I suspect that’s just a taste of what’s to come.

Trump wants to win. But more than that he wants to dominate and command respect. He wants to be praised. That will overmatch the desire to win. In fact, I suspect he’ll find them indistinguishable in the impulse driven mental world in which he operates. Like a Latter-Day Rage and Derp Samson he’ll pull down the walls of the Republican temple taking everyone down with him.

This is admittedly a dramatic vision. It’s unlikely to come to quite that. But neither of the two obvious options are really viable for Republican officeholders. So I suspect they’ll try to varying degrees to keep splitting the difference, much as Ayotte is now, at once nominally supporting Trump while denouncing everything he does. That too is not really a sustainable or credible position, particularly for someone already in a tight race. But it’s the least unworkable of the unworkable and terrible options.

All of this assumes of course that Trump remains at a mid- to high- single digit disadvantage. That could change. It also assumes that Trump will remain in his impulsive, transgressive and increasingly erratic mode. That won’t change. Indeed, character and past experience suggests that mounting stress will make Trump’s behavior increasingly wild. He’ll keep raising the stakes the worse things get.

We’re just coming off the conventions. Things could change. But we’re at the start now of the real campaign. We can see the outlines of the implosion starting to come into view. Like a hapless rodeo clown dragged about by an angry bull they’re really totally at his mercy.

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