Elections

What Trump’s Performance Will Signal about the GOP’s Future

President Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Bullhead City, Ariz., October 28, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The president’s performance relative to GOP Senate candidates’ will tell us whether he’s a political unicorn or a more durable phenomenon.

If Donald Trump wins another term next week, he will be the undisputed face of the Republican Party for another four years. Beating Hillary Clinton, and then defying the odds to claim a second term amid an economy-wrecking pandemic, would be a historic political accomplishment. But Trump is not a traditional Republican, and no matter how 2020 shakes out, Republicans will face the question of just how “Trump-y” they should become and how much this unlikeliest of figures — the constantly-tweeting, twice-divorced casino owner and reality-television star — should shape the GOP moving forward.

In 2016, Trump managed something that should be impossible: He won 306 electoral votes —304 once two faithless electors are factored in — while being, on average, less popular than the GOP Senate candidates running below him on the same ballot. In 18 states, Trump ran six or fewer points behind the GOP Senate candidate:

  • In Alabama, Richard Shelby won 64 percent of the vote, and Trump won 62 percent.
  • In Arizona, John McCain won 53 percent of the vote, and Trump won 48.6 percent.
  • In Colorado, Darryl Glenn won 44.3 percent of the vote, and Trump won 43.25 percent.
  • In Florida, Marco Rubio won 52 percent of the vote, and Trump won 49 percent.
  • In Georgia, Johnny Isakson won 54.8 percent of the vote, and Trump won 50.7 percent.
  • In Idaho, Mike Crapo won 66.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 59.2 percent.
  • In Illinois, Mark Kirk won 39.8 percent of the vote, and Trump won 38.7 percent.
  • In Kansas, Jerry Moran won 62.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 59.7 percent.
  • In Louisiana, John Kennedy won 60.6 percent of the vote, and Trump won 58 percent.
  • In Maryland, Kathy Szeliga won 35.7 percent of the vote, and Trump won 33.9 percent.
  • In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte won 47.8 percent of the vote, and Trump won 46.6 percent.
  • In North Carolina, Richard Burr won 51.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 49.8 percent.
  • In Oklahoma, James Lankford won 67.7 percent of the vote, and Trump won 65.3 percent.
  • In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey won 48.9 percent of the vote, and Trump won 48.2 percent.
  • In South Carolina, Tim Scott won 60.5 percent of the vote, and Trump won 54.9 percent.
  • In Vermont, Scott Milne won 33 percent of the vote, and Trump won 30.2 percent.
  • In Washington, Chris Vance won 40.9 percent of the vote, and Trump won 36.8 percent.
  • In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson won 50.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 47.2 percent.

In five states, Trump ran six or more points behind the GOP Senate candidate:

  • In Iowa, Chuck Grassley won 60.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 51.1 percent.
  • In Ohio, Rob Portman won 58 percent of the vote, and Trump won 51.6 percent.
  • In North Dakota, John Hoeven won 78.4 percent of the vote, and Trump won 62.9 percent.
  • In South Dakota, John Thune won 71.8 percent of the vote, and Trump won 61.5 percent.
  • In Utah, Mike Lee won 68.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 45.5 percent. (We should note that this owed in part to independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, who finished third in his home state at 21.5 percent.)

In ten states, Trump ran ahead of the GOP Senate candidate:

  • In Alaska, Lisa Murkowski won 44 percent of the vote, and Trump won 51.2 percent.
  • In Arkansas, John Boozman won 59.7 percent of the vote, and Trump won 60.5 percent.
  • In Connecticut, Dan Carter won 34.6 percent of the vote, and Trump won 40.9 percent.
  • In Hawaii, John Carroll won 22.2 percent of the vote, and Trump won 30 percent.
  • In Indiana, Todd Young won 52.1 percent of the vote, and Trump won 56.8 percent.
  • In Kentucky, Rand Paul won 57.3 percent of the vote, and Trump won 62.5 percent.
  • In Missouri, Roy Blunt won 49.3 percent of the vote, and Trump won 56.7 percent.
  • In Nevada, Joe Heck won 44.7 percent of the vote, and Trump won 45.5 percent.
  • In New York, Wendy Long won 27.4 percent of the vote, and Trump won 36.5 percent.
  • In Oregon, Mark Callahan won 33.3 percent of the vote, and Trump won 39 percent.

We shouldn’t be that surprised to see a party’s Senate candidate running ahead of its presidential nominee. The Senate candidate usually has local roots and has spent at least the past year tailoring a message to the state’s electorate, while the presidential candidate is trying to win votes all across the country. In the uncompetitive states, the presidential candidate may not even visit after the primaries.

That said, even presidential candidates who don’t reach 270 electoral votes can win more votes than the Senate candidates in their party. Mitt Romney is remembered as a disappointing Republican candidate, but he outperformed most of the GOP Senate candidates in 2012, sometimes by significant margins. Back in 2013, Ramesh Ponnuru checked the final vote counts and observed:

In Wisconsin, Virginia, and Texas, Romney ran just barely ahead of Tommy Thompson (by 0.03 percent), George Allen (0.3 percent), and Ted Cruz (0.7 percent), respectively.

In Nebraska, Ohio, and Arizona, Romney ran ahead of Deb Fischer (2.3), Josh Mandel (3), and Jeff Flake (4.3).

Romney performed significantly better in Michigan, Florida, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Missouri than Pete Hoekstra (6.7), Connie Mack IV (6.9), Rick Berg (9), Richard Mourdock (9.8), Denny Rehberg (10.5), and Todd Akin (14.7).

In about a week or so, we will know roughly how many votes Donald Trump received in every state and how many votes the GOP Senate candidate received in every state. Four years ago, Trump ran behind the GOP Senate candidate in 23 of 33 states with Senate races. Another result like that in 2020 will underscore the extent to which Trump is an . . . acquired taste. He’s brash, he doesn’t stick to the script, he embraces hot-button cultural issues, he relishes tearing into his opponents in the most incendiary ways, and he struggles to tone down his combative instincts even a little bit. That wins him lots of voters whom a more traditional candidate like Romney couldn’t win, but it also repels a lot of voters whom such a candidate could win.

If, when the 2020 vote count is complete, Trump wins fewer votes than Republican Senate nominees in most states, it will weaken the argument that the GOP as a whole should become “Trumpier” in tone or substance. Trump may well turn out to have been a political unicorn, the beneficiary of three decades of skillful brand-building and a 2016 opponent — Hillary Clinton — who will go down as one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Or he might turn out to be a more durable phenomenon. We won’t have to wait long to find out.

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