While Donald Trump has survived what for anyone else would have been extinction events before, one gets the strong feeling that Pussygate is different (I hate myself for using that term, but the laws of political comedy made me do it, I swear). Here with a first take on what it might mean is everyone’s 2012 personal savior, Nate Silver.
My view of this general election — both how the FiveThirtyEight forecast models see the race and how I see it personally — is that it’s characterized by high volatility and high uncertainty. Those two things go together, although they’re not quite the same.
By volatility, I mean that the polls have been relatively responsive to news events. At various occasions, Hillary Clinton has been ahead by as few as 1 or 2 percentage points over Trump, or by as much as 8 to 10 points. The fluctuations are a lot larger than what we saw in 2012.
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So, to a first approximation, we’d expect the Trump tape to hurt him in the polls, particularly in light of the many GOP officials abandoning him.
Many of those Republican defections are strategic rather than sincere, of course. If the news had broken when Trump was 5 or 6 percentage points ahead of Clinton instead of 5 or 6 points behind her, we probably wouldn’t see quite so coordinated and forceful a reaction. But the timing of this is just about as bad as possible for Trump. Even before the “hot mic” tape, there were reports that GOP elected officials might abandon Trump if he had a poor second debate. That makes sense, given that the Senate is still close to a toss-up and hasn’t made a definitive break in either direction. With one month left until the election, there’s perhaps just enough time for vulnerable Republican candidates to convince themselves that they’re better off abandoning Trump than sticking by him.
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On the one hand, the fact that Trump’s support was so low to begin with could presumably mitigate the damage to him. If you’re only getting 40 percent of the vote, the voters you do have are probably pretty committed to you — and Trump has some passionate supporters.
On the other hand, the fact that Trump has only 40 percent of the vote means that the downside for him is awfully far down. What if he doesn’t win over any undecideds, and 40 percent turns out to be more of a ceiling than a floor? Trump’s unfavorable rating was approaching 60 percent even before the “hot mic” tape surfaced, which means he was already running into a headwind in terms of picking up additional support.
Furthermore, he’s targeted a narrow slice of the electorate instead of a majority coalition. He doesn’t have much of a ground game to turn out his marginal voters, and, especially if he’s losing in the polls, they could decide that it just isn’t worth the time to vote.
If Trump gets stuck at 40 percent of the vote, you could wind up with an outcome like Clinton 51 percent, Trump 40 percent, Gary Johnson 7 percent, Jill Stein and others 2 percent, or something of that nature. That is, a double-digit win for Clinton, which could potentially yield somewhere around 400 votes for her in the Electoral College, and make states as exotic as Texas and Alaska competitive.
That outcome might seem far-fetched. But in an election with high uncertainty, it shouldn’t be. Even before the “hot mic” tape, our model gave Clinton a 5 to 6 percentage point lead, and the error in the forecast is roughly symmetric. The polls could move by 5 or 6 points toward Trump, giving him a narrow win, or — equally likely, per our model — they could move by 5 or 6 points toward Clinton, giving her a double-digit margin. To put it another way, a Clinton landslide is no more far-fetched than a Trump victory — and given the events of the past 24 hours, probably less so.
I’ve long felt that the dam was getting ready to burst with all the negative baggage Trump was lugging around. That it’s happening now, a month out and 24 hours before a critical debate, could portend a flood of mythical proportions. Silver, in more of a quantitative analysis than my end times scenario, thinks similarly. Now if that’s not something to send you sailing out on your Saturday night feeling good, I can’t help you.