Trump could damage Congressional Republicans

With just over three weeks until election day, opinion polls indicate that Hillary Clinton continues to have a strong position in the Electoral College.

The latest polling shows Clinton leading in states worth 352 Electoral Votes (EVs), with Donald Trump leading in states worth 186 EVs.  Since last week, the only lead change is in Ohio (18 EVs), which has gone from 'tied' to a Clinton 'lead' (see the Electoral College map from ElectoralVote above).

Clinton leads by five points or more in states worth 256 EVs (light and dark blue states), down from 265 last week.  The only poll in Virginia last week was probably a Trump-favouring outlier, explaining this change.  

There was a shocking poll for Trump in Texas (38 EVs), showing him only ahead by 4 points there.  If Clinton wins Texas, she would crush Trump in the Electoral College.  As a result of the Texas poll, Trump now only leads by five points or more in states worth 116 EVs, down from 165 last week (light and dark red states).

The Huffington Post Pollster national aggregate has Clinton leading with 44.8%, followed by Trump at 38.8%, Libertarian Gary Johnson at 7.2%, 5.6% undecided and 3.6% for 'Others' including Green Jill Stein.  Last week, Clinton led by 44.2-38.9.  Despite the events of last week, Clinton’s lead has only increased by about one point.

Pollster charts give Trump a 63% unfavourable, 34% favourable rating (59-38 last week), and Clinton a 54% unfavourable, 44% favourable rating (54-43 last week).  (In comparison, President Barack Obama has a 51% approve, 46% disapprove job performance rating (51-47 last week)).

On Friday 7 October, damning audio recorded in 2005 was released of Trump bragging about groping women without consent.  His debate performance on Sunday 9 October mitigated the effect of the audio, mainly because Republicans consolidated behind Trump.  

During the debate, Trump’s attacks on Clinton, such as saying he would attempt to jail her if he were President, rallied Republicans, as most of them genuinely believe Clinton should be in jail.  Trump’s current rhetoric on jailing Clinton is unlikely to win over swing voters, but it will keep his base happy.

Trump’s defence of the tape as talk rather than action, has since been challenged by more than eight women who claimed that he had behaved inappropriately towards them, by groping or kissing them without consent, or walking in on beauty contestants while they were dressing.

Despite the audio and the allegations of unwanted sexual contact, Trump’s support has not collapsed.  According to this poll from Public Policy Polling relating to Florida, 84% of Trump voters believe Clinton should be in jail, and 75% believe Trump respects women, despite all evidence to the contrary.  That makes it hard to further damage Trump.  However, his comments about women is likely to increase the aversion to Trump among those not already committed to backing him, making it more likely that Clinton will easily win late deciders.

The third and final Presidential debate will be held this Thursday 20 October at 12 noon Australian Eastern Daylight Time.  The format will be the same as in the first debate, with the candidates standing at lecterns and being questioned by a moderator.

Congressional elections

The Congress is the national legislative body of the US.  As in Australia, bills (proposed laws) need to pass both the House and the Senate to become law.  US Presidents can veto a bill, in which case a 2/3 majority of both Houses is required to override the veto.  

Presidential elections are held every four years, but Congressional elections come every two years.  A Congressional election that is not held concurrently with a Presidential election is known as a midterm election.  As with the Presidential election, almost all Congressional contests are decided by First Past the Post.

The Democrats need to gain five seats to control the Senate

Unlike Australia, the US Senate is the more powerful chamber, as its consent is required to confirm many Presidential appointments, such as Cabinet level positions and judges.  Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, a Supreme Court seat has been vacant. Filling it will be a flashpoint in the new Senate, which sits from January 2017.

The Senate has 100 members, with each state electing two Senators.  Senators have six year terms, and every two years roughly 1/3 are up for election.  Often, there are also Senate by-elections held on the same day as the regular election.  This year, only the regular 34 Senate seats are up for election.  Senators are elected by whole states.

The Republicans currently hold 54 Senators, to 44 Democrats and two Independents who usually vote with the Democrats.  The Democrats need to gain five seats for control, although a four seat gain would give a 50-50 tie, and the Vice President would have the deciding vote.  Of the 34 seats up for election, 24 are currently held by Republicans and 10 by Democrats.

A peculiarity of the US Senate is that legislation and Presidential appointments can be blocked if there is no 3/5 majority (60 votes) in favour of ending a filibuster and proceeding to an actual vote.  The filibuster is not part of the Constitution, and is only part of the Senate rules as long as the majority party tolerates it.  Given the high level of polarization in the US, it would not be surprising if the filibuster is soon abolished.

ElectoralVote also has a Senate map, in the same style as the Presidential map.  Grey states on the Senate map are states where there is no Senate contest this year.

Electoral Vote Senate map

Including seats that are not up for election, the Democrats are currently ahead by at least five points in 47 seats, and the Republicans in 47.  The six close states will determine control of the Senate.  Of these, the Democrats lead in two, the Republicans in two, and two are tied.

Could the Democrats win the House?

The House of Representatives has 435 members, apportioned among states on the basis of population.  The lowest population states have one House member each, while California has 53 members.  All 435 House members are up for election every two years.

As in Australia, single member electorates, which are called Congressional Districts (CDs), are used for US House elections.  Unlike Australia, in most states CD boundaries are controlled by a state’s elected politicians, not by a nonpartisan commission.  CDs must have a roughly equal number of people, but gerrymandering is common to maximise the seats for a given party.  Some CDs are very oddly shaped.

In 2010, the Democrats were routed in the midterm elections, losing control of the House, and many important state legislatures and governorships.  This was great timing for the Republicans, as 2010 was a Census year.  CD boundaries are based on the Census, and cannot usually be changed until the next Census in 2020.

The Republican gerrymanders meant they were able to hold the House in 2012 by 234-201, despite losing the overall House popular vote by 1.2%.  As I noted in this 2012 election report, in the five Presidential swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan, the combined representation was 51 Republicans to 21 Democrats, even though the Democrats won the overall House popular vote across these five states by 0.5%.

The 2014 midterm elections were another disaster for the Democrats, and the Republicans now hold a 247-188 House majority.  The Democrats have done badly at the last two midterm elections as their voters are not motivated to turn out at such elections, while the Republican base has been motivated by hatred of Obama and his policies.

The generic Congressional ballot is the best guide to who is winning nationally.  The Pollster aggregate has Democrats leading Republicans by 46.3-40.7, with 11.6% undecided.  A six point win for the Democrats nationally may be enough to overcome the gerrymandering.

The Democrats may be helped by Trump’s weakness among university-educated whites, since the gerrymanders would have been designed on the assumption that Republicans would easily win this demographic.  Some Trump supporters may refuse to vote for Republicans who have failed to endorse Trump, and this would also benefit Democrats.

Author

Dr Adrian Beaumont

Election Watch polls analyst

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    politics; election Politics; Election