The polling story for Republicans for months now, in good times and bad times for Donald Trump, has been the surprising resilience of Republican Senate candidates (and to some extent candidates in House and governor races). This is not what was originally projected for 2016, as the GOP is defending a very large number of seats in purple and blue states won in the 2010 wave, and on offense only in Nevada and Colorado; so even the most bullish observers of the GOP presidential field expected some losses in the Senate. At the same time, many skeptical observers of the Trump campaign (myself included) thought the combination of contagion from a toxically unpopular nominee and Trump’s abandonment of a traditional ground game meant that he would have catastrophic consequences down the ticket.
So far, it hasn’t happened — but then, so far, all we have is polls, not election results. Updating the chart I’ve been using for a few months now, here’s how the GOP’s Senate candidates compare to Trump’s standing in the same states in the RCP polling averages:
Given the availability of more polls, I’ve added two states that were left off prior iterations of this chart (Illinois and Utah), but I include two separate bottom lines, the second with Utah removed, since Mike Lee isn’t really in a competitive race (then again, no other Republican nominee for president would be in one in Utah, where Mitt Romney got 72.6 percent of the vote), and I don’t want to let one state skew the results. Of perhaps greatest concern to Senate Republicans, the people who seem to be running furthest ahead of Trump are the ones in states that have not been polled as regularly recently (the “Fresh” column shows how many of the polls in the current average were taken in October).
Eleven of the twelve Republicans running ahead of Trump (all but Joe Heck) are incumbents, but the margins by which they lead him are pretty significant, with five running double digits ahead of him and four others running 5.9 to 7.8 points ahead. Only Heck and Ron Johnson are within three points of Trump, although the Nevada Senate race still has a lot of undecided voters and isn’t over yet. Allahpundit suggests that Trump may actually be helping other Republican candidates look sane and temperate by comparison, and clearly voters are able to discern that Trump is not representative of the party and not truly embraced even by people who are nominally endorsing him.
With Johnson now running ahead of Trump, only three GOP Senate candidates are running worse than Trump, and only one incumbent, Roy Blunt in Missouri. Darryl Glenn in Colorado is running a fairly weak campaign against a Democratic incumbent (Glenn declared himself an enthusiastic Trump backer in July, “suspended” his endorsement after the Billy Bush GrabGate video hit, and has lately inched back towards supporting Trump), and Todd Young is still in a brawl with former senator Evan Bayh.
A lot of people in the GOP really wish there wasn’t still almost three weeks to Election Day, because the trends can still get a lot worse. And frankly, even though the news is still relatively encouraging for Senate Republicans, I’m not totally sure I believe the polls. There’s no reason to doubt that they have the general storyline correct: Trump is losing fairly decisively, while normal Republicans are running ahead of him. But there’s a lot of variables here. Trump is such an unconventional candidate, and this election has been so unusual in so many ways (colossal TV ratings, massively unpopular candidates nominated by both parties), that it’s hard to have much confidence that we know what turnout will be like at all (and if your poll doesn’t accurately project turnout, the rest of its findings are almost useless).
Senate races are likely to have very little control over turnout in a presidential contest, and Republicans lost a bunch of close races in 2008 and 2012 for that reason. We also don’t know how the closing-weeks dynamics will affect ticket-splitting or coattails. Will stubborn Trump voters come out believing the race is still competitive? Will listeners to pro-Trump talk radio boycott down-ticket races to protest perceived disloyalty to Trump? (People like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio are obviously working hard to avoid giving Trump an excuse to tell his supporters openly not to vote Republican down-ticket). Will voters in the booth who are appalled by Trump and uncomfortable with Hillary vote for divided government as a check, or will they vote Democrat to punish the GOP for Trump? Will the GOP’s absence of a ground game cause the party to seriously underperform projected turnout? The polls have an answer for all these questions. We don’t know yet if it’s the right one.