If you go to a Donald Trump rally in the next week or two, chances are you won’t hear something you heard at earlier Trump rallies: the candidate discussing, at much more length than anyone could possibly be interested in, just how great he’s doing in the polls. However, you might hear him mention that the polls are all rigged against him, because since the conventions, those polls have taken a dramatic turn in Hillary Clinton’s favor. In fact, we’ve reached a point where it no longer looks like a “bounce” but like a lasting shift in Clinton’s favor. That raises the possibility that we could be headed for a genuine blowout in November. What would that mean for Congress and for a potential Clinton presidency?
Before we go on, let me be clear that I’m not claiming that what the polls say right now allows us to predict exactly what will happen on Election Day. There will most likely be movements up and down between now and then. The race could tighten considerably. Clinton’s lead could grow even bigger. Trump could pull ahead and win. All those scenarios are possible.
But the lead Clinton enjoys right now is pretty remarkable. The HuffPost/Pollster average shows her leading by nine points; RealClearPolitics puts her ahead by 7½; CNN’s Poll of Polls has her leading by 10. We’ve now seen multiple individual polls showing her with double-digit leads. As a point of comparison, at no point in 2012 did Barack Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney in poll averages exceed six points or so; Obama won the election by four points. Four years earlier, Obama’s biggest polling lead over John McCain was around seven or eight points; he won by seven.
So it’s at least possible that Clinton could run away with this election, and it isn’t hard to imagine how it could happen. She continues running her cautious campaign. Trump, on the other hand, keeps offending and appalling voters, and the farther behind he gets, the more repellent he becomes. More and more Republicans flee from him, either to support Clinton, vote for a third-party candidate or not vote at all. She wins most or all of the battleground states and winds up beating him by 10 or 11 points in the two-party popular vote, which would make it the third-largest margin since Lyndon Johnson’s 22-point win in 1964, behind Nixon in 1972 (a 23-point margin) and Reagan in 1984 (18 points).
In this scenario, the great unknown is whether down-ballot Republican candidates can successfully distance themselves from Trump. If it’s a true “wave” election, that means they can’t — the whole point of a wave is that the particularities of individual campaigns get swamped by the broad national trend. They’re certainly trying, though. In the Senate, for instance, you have cases like that of Illinois’ Mark Kirk, who has proclaimed that he won’t support Trump, or New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, who has taken what we can now think of as the Paul Ryan position, condemning Trump’s words at any opportunity while maintaining her endorsement. It’s no accident that Kirk is running in a heavily Democratic state where he can’t win unless he gets votes from lots of Democrats, while Ayotte is in a closely divided state, so maintaining Republican support is a greater priority for her.
But will the stench of Trump stay on them no matter how carefully they calibrate their responses to him? Recent history doesn’t provide a clear answer. There are cases like 1980, where Ronald Reagan’s win over Jimmy Carter brought with it enormous Republican wins in Congress — a 12-seat gain in the Senate and a 34-seat gain in the House. But then there are cases like Nixon’s 1972 win, which, despite its enormous size, didn’t bring with it large congressional gains — while Republicans did pick up some seats in the House that year, they actually lost seats in the Senate.
There’s also the fact that Trump is such an unusual candidate, which means that things could go either way — voters could be so disgusted with him that they punish all Republicans, or they could view him as so unique that they separate their judgment of him from their judgment of every other candidate.
For the past couple of years, the assumption has been that while Democrats could win the four seats they need to gain a Senate majority, winning the House is somewhere between unlikely and impossible, not only because of the Republicans’ large advantage but also because clever redistricting and geographic sorting (where people move to be among those who think like them) have left us with only a small number of swing districts. That means that for Democrats to win the House, they’d need something extremely unlikely to happen, like large numbers of Republicans not only voting against Trump but voting against other Republicans, too, or a vast demobilization of Republican voters.
The success of a potential Clinton presidency could turn in large part on whether Democrats get past those 50 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House. If Republicans control even one chamber, they’ll be able to stop any legislation they want to. And there are two big factors suggesting they’ll be as obstructionist as they can, particularly in the House. The first is that whatever seats they lose will be in swing districts, meaning that the losers will probably be the more moderate members. With them gone, that will leave a Republican caucus even more conservative than it is now (if you can imagine such a thing).
The second is that they’ll look back at the experience of the Obama years and see that obstructionism can produce huge gains in midterm elections, as the public gets frustrated with inaction and blames the president and her party. So even if Democrats took one or both houses of Congress this year, they could just as easily lose them in 2018. And there may be no wave big enough to keep that from happening.