I have been in Washington, D.C. for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, Bill Clinton’s demise and resurrection in the 1992 race, the hanging chads of 2000, the election of the first black president in 2008, and the GOP tsunami of 2010, so I should not be shocked by anything.
But my jaw has dropped so many times during the past year and a half that I may need to see an oral and maxillofacial surgeon to put it back in place. Talk about a roller-coaster ride.
And yet, the contours of the 2016 presidential race have been remarkably consistent in many ways.
Republicans hate Hillary Clinton. Democrats (and some Republicans) hate Donald Trump. Independents generally don’t like either of them.
News events — whether around the national conventions and the debates, or about Donald Trump’s vulgar comments and behavior or Hillary Clinton’s emails — caused short-term fluctuations in ballot tests but never fundamentally changed the underlying division in the country.
Had the GOP nominated a reasonable candidate for president, he or she might well be a clear favorite over Clinton, whose unfavorable ratings have now matched Trump’s after James B. Comey threw a hand grenade into the presidential race almost a week ago.
But nothing changed the rough balance in the race established even before the two parties had official nominees. Not WikiLeaks about Clinton. Not accusations of Trump’s sexual harassment (or audiotapes documenting his crudeness). Not the release of information that Trump didn’t pay taxes. Not information about the Clinton and Trump foundations. Not Trump’s efforts to denigrate a Gold Star family. Not the interference of Russia in a U.S. presidential election.
In national 2-way polls conducted between late June and mid-July earlier this year, seven major national media polls showed the presidential contest ranging from a tie (CBS News/New York Times) to Clinton up by 1 point (NBC News/Survey Monkey), 3 points (McClatchy/Marist), 4 points (ABC News/Washington Post), 5 points (NBC News/Wall Street Journal), 6 points (Fox News) and 7 points (CNN/ORC).
Until Comey’s letter to Congress, Clinton and Trump were headed for a normal endgame, and the Democrat was likely to have either a clear victory of 3 to 5 points, or a more decisive one in the 6- to 8-point range.
But the FBI director changed all that, making the final ten days of the election “about” Clinton.
No, there was no information about misdeeds on Clinton’s part, only new questions involving the contents of the emails. That refocused the narrative so as to remind voters of Clinton’s flaws — and changed the trajectory of the presidential contest.
It also helped down-ballot Republicans, by giving them new talking points that are keeping Democrats on the defensive. Strategists from both parties agree that there has been some late movement to the GOP up and down the ballot, largely a result of increased Republican enthusiasm.
In addition, weaker African American turnout in early voting certainly is troubling for Democrats. But party insiders wisely note that it is too soon to know whether that will continue through Election Day.
In the fight for the Senate, Republicans are now close to even money to hold their majority. Open-seat hopeful Joseph J. Heck (R-Nevada), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) look better off than they did a week ago, though that does not mean any or all of them will win. The outlook for Senate control is now a virtual toss-up, though with greater downside risk for the GOP.
Talk about the House flipping has wisely disappeared, and likely Democratic gains in the House ranging from the low teens to 20 seats could well shrink by a few seats.
In the presidential contest, Clinton’s lead of a week ago has clearly narrowed. The question is how much.
The Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a dead heat, while the RealClearPolitics average has Clinton’s average margin down to a couple of points.
Four years ago, the RealClearPolitics average was surprisingly off on Election Day — it showed Obama with a narrow 0.7-point lead over Mitt Romney while the president’s final margin was 3.9 points. On the other hand, the last 2012 Post/ABC poll was among the most accurate (showing Obama with a 3-point lead).
A final flurry of quality polls in the next few days should give us more of an idea where the race stands. But even then, turnout is likely to be the key — with the focus on three important demographic groups that prefer Clinton: blacks, Latinos and younger voters.
If those groups turn out in numbers comparable to 2012, Clinton will win, possibly comfortably. If they don’t, an upset can’t be ruled out.
Partisan pollsters on both sides of the aisle are skeptical that the race is truly even, and they question how much of a path Trump has to 270 electoral votes.
They believe that Comey’s actions have helped Trump close the gap by a point or two but that Clinton still holds an advantage and is likely to win by from 2 to 5 points — or somewhere not too different from 2012’s final result.
They also agree that while states like North Carolina and Florida are now too close to call, it is very unlikely that Trump will sweep all of the toss-up states and pick off one or two Clinton-leaning states, which he would need to do to win.
Of course, tried and true political rules of thumb have often not held true this year. After failing to predict what GOP voters would do with their nomination, those rules appeared to be back in force throughout most of the general election. They all pointed to a Clinton victory.
But Comey’s intervention has changed all that. While Clinton remains a narrow popular vote favorite and a somewhat wider electoral vote favorite going into the final days, there now is a reasonable level of uncertainty about the outcome. Additional polls could change that.
The cake was baked in this race. Then James B. Comey threw it away. Now another cake is in the oven. It is still likely to be an identical copy of the first cake, though probably a bit smaller.
The bottom line: Clinton remains the favorite (in both the popular and electoral votes), though a less comfortable one than a week ago. The fight for the Senate looks like a toss-up, with Democrats still having more paths than the GOP to a majority. And, the House is not in play.
Ask me in half an hour whether I still feel the same way. You might get a different answer.
Stuart Rothenberg writes about the politics of the presidential and congressional races.