Where does Campaign 2016 stand today? We don’t know, but we can take some educated guesses based on the available data (with the caution that some of that data is less reliable than others — Sean Trende, for example, offers some cautions about over-reading the early vote data). What that data suggests is that the GOP is probably going to avoid a catastrophic wipeout, but still likely to lose a bunch of heartbreakingly close races, including the presidential contest. But the clear trend in the polls of late has been reminiscent of the furious charges of Bob Dole in 1996 and Gerald Ford in 1976 to close the margin of races they were doomed to lose, with Republican voters coming home to the party at the end. That may be too little, too late to save Donald Trump, but it could save the GOP’s existing majorities in the Senate, House, Governor’s mansions and more state legislative chambers than the party has held in its entire history. If you’re Reince Priebus or Paul Ryan, that possibility sounds like sweet relief as a balm for likely disappointment in the marquee race.
I won’t delve at length here into all the reasons why Trump is still likely to lose the presidential race, but let’s take a fairly Trump-friendly walk through the map. Assume he wins all the previously safe-red territory that Mitt Romney won by more than a hair, but where a Trump victory has been in question — Georgia, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Alaska, Nebraska’s Second District (metro Omaha). Assume further he wins Florida and Ohio, both of which have been polled a good deal lately and seem to show narrow Trump leads, and Iowa, a red-trending state with a heavily white electorate that has been lightly polled but which also looks like a potential Trump pickup. That gets him to 244 electoral votes. Then assume the blue states where Hillary has at least a four-point lead in the RCP average all stay with her – Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico. That gets Hillary to 239, and Pennsylvania looms large with 20 electoral votes — but while Hillary’s lead in the average is only a little over 3 points and Trump is hugely popular in much of the west and center of the state, and while it was fairly close in 2012 without a lot of effort by Mitt Romney, ultimately Hillary has led in 38 straight polls there, and Democrats have won the state in six straight presidential elections. Trump can win it all if he turns Pennsylvania, and the polls could be wrong for various reasons, but as of now, there’s no evidence that’s happening.
Once you give Pennsylvania to Hillary, that leaves her needing 11 electoral votes, while Trump needs 26:
North Carolina, which Romney won narrowly, assumes massive importance here — Hillary can win the election by taking it. RCP has had her with a persistent lead of a few points in the Tarheel State since early October, and the latest Quinnipiac poll has her up 47–44 — but a couple of good late polls for Trump, mainly a SurveyUSA poll with him leading by 7, have pulled the average even. That’s where turnout comes into play . . . Trump winning North Carolina is a definite possibility right now, but it’s still less than a 50–50 shot.
And North Carolina would only get him to even with Hillary (259–259), with the race in the hands of Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Maine’s rural second district. But Trump still trails in Colorado, and recent history has shown that the Democrats’ ground game tends to be decisive in close races in both Colorado and Nevada, both of which have large Hispanic populations that are hard to capture in polling. If Hillary wins both, Trump loses; if they split, but Hillary wins Colorado, then Trump needs to run the table in Nevada, New Hampshire and ME-2 to get to 270 (or Nevada and New Hampshire if he wants 269 and the election decided by the newly elected House, which in that case would still likely be Republican-held). And New Hampshire is a wild card — Hillary still has a three-point lead, but the last two polls showed Trump leads. It seems full circle that, even if Trump runs the table everywhere else to get close, the two states that gave Trump his biggest early primary wins would hold his fate in November.
As to the Senate races, what we see now is a good deal of tightening between the presidential and Senate tickets, with Trump now dragging two Senate candidates behind him in states he’s likely to win (Roy Blunt in Missouri and Todd Young in Indiana) and — while he’s still running behind most of the GOP’s Senate candidates — closing the gap to where four races (Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) show the presidential and Senate races more or less even. For all the norm-breaking nature of Trump as a candidate, the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton has restored some of the more normal partisan dynamics of a general election: