By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
As more polling arrives in the aftermath of the release of the Access Hollywood tapes on October 7th, in which Trump talks about using his fame to sexually assault women, it has become increasingly clear that the damage to his candidacy is real. This is widening a rift in the Republican Party between those who worry that Trump is damaging the party and the loyalists who are sticking with Trump.
Clinton’s upward trajectory in the polls began after the first debate on Sept. 27th, and despite the widespread assessment that Trump had stopped the bleeding with his performance in the second debate, there is little evidence of this in the polling data. Instead, Trump’s chances of winning have continued to slide to the point where they are now at just 14.9% according to the forecasting website FiveThirtyEight.
Trump has moderately recovered from low points in the past, so it is possible that his chances of winning improve again. But voting has already begun in many states and Trump has been unable to move his polling average above 44%, while Clinton has never polled lower than 44%. A comeback by Trump at this late stage would be historically unprecedented and is unlikely given his very high net-unfavorability numbers, which have worsened since the second debate.
Republican Party leaders like Paul Ryan suggested this week that they will not continue to support him. Instead, they are opting to redirect resources towards protecting the Republican majorities in Congress. In response, Trump has declared on Twitter that he will attack Republicans who don’t support him, while continuing to highlight Bill Clinton’s problematic history with women.
A rift of this kind is unprecedented in presidential elections in the modern era. Even if the party mostly falls back in line with Trump before the election, there will be an aftermath.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan [Getty]
Republican establishment figures like campaign strategist Mike Murphy and conservatives who are anti-Trump like Erick Erickson are openly announcing that there will be a “civil war” in the party after what they expect will be a big loss for Trump on election day. They are taking advantage of the moment to plunge a knife into the backs of those who continue to support Trump by calling for them to be punished.
Underlying the rift in the party is the recognition that the party cannot win if its support among women – especially white suburban women who have voted Republican in the past – collapses. Even though Trump has never been ahead of Clinton in the race to become President, now that Trump’s support with this key demographic is faltering, the Republican majority in the House and Senate is also under serious threat. That has not been the case until now, despite Trump’s controversial attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, among others.
Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell want to protect their majorities at all costs. They also have in mind that, on paper, the 2018 mid-terms look favorable for the Republican Party because numerous Democratic Senators and Governors in Republican leaning states will be on the ballot. But the party will have a hard time in 2018 if there is lasting damage to the party’s image among women.
Trump has made clear that he will take the party down with him if they do not get in line. While it is possible that the rift between Trump and the establishment wing of the party can be somewhat bridged before the election, until that happens the instructions to Senate and House candidates appear to be: Close the hatches and ride out the storm by doing what is best for each individual re-election effort.