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Diplomacy in Action

2016 Election State of the Race: Is Congress Now in Play?

Geoff Skelley, Associate Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics' Authoritative, Nonpartisan Newsletter on American Campaigns and Elections
Washington, DC
October 14, 2016


MODERATOR: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest in the series of the Washington Foreign Press Center’s on-the-record teleconferences. Today, we have for you Mr. Geoff Skelley, Associate Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Authoritative Non-Partisan Newsletter on American Campaigns and Elections. He will discuss the 2016 election, the state of the race, and whether Congress is now in play.

Without further ado, here is Geoff.

MR SKELLEY: Hi, everyone. Thanks for having me. So generally, I’m just going to give a short overview of where things stand and then I’m happy to take as many questions as we can fit in, I guess.

So obviously, when thinking about the congressional races – the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House – an important factor is the presidential race. There’s the concept of coattails in – well, politics everywhere to some degree, but in U.S. presidential elections particularly, which is the idea that the candidate at the top of the ticket can very much influence, positively or negatively, the outcome for other members of his or her party who are down the ballot running for other offices. So in an election where you have the highest turnout of any election in U.S. elections, the presidential race, this can have an impact.

So with – ever since the first presidential debate, Donald Trump’s margin has flagged, it’s gotten worse against Hillary Clinton. And recent events, such as the video recording that came out with Trump’s lewd comments and the fallout from all of that and further accusations now by women who are coming out of the woodwork talking about their encounters with Donald Trump, much of this seems to probably be solidifying his poor position in the race. And so currently in the polling averages, Clinton is up anywhere from about five to eight points, depending on whether or not you’re including the third party candidates. And I should note that the third party support will probably not be as high as it is in the polling averages right now, so that’s why it still is worth looking at the head-to-head polls. So all of this is not good news for Republicans down-ballot running for the U.S. Senate, for the U.S. House, and even further down, though we’re not going to get into that – things like gubernatorial races and state legislative races in many states around the country.

And so as things stand when we’re looking at the U.S. Senate, it is very much up for grabs, though, but it’s going to require Republican Senate candidates to run ahead of Trump. And while that is possible and almost likely, I would say, the problem is that in this day and age in American politics, there’s not – there’s just simply not a lot of split-ticket voting. There may be more in this cycle than in 2012, but four years ago, we had the smallest number of – or smallest share of voter split tickets in terms of which party they voted for at the presidential level and which party they voted for in congressional races that we’ve ever seen in data from the election – American National Election study going back to 1952. So while there may be more split tickets in 2016 than 2012, it’s still not going to be a very large percentage of the overall electorate. So for Republican Senators who are incumbents or running in competitive states that have open seats, it’s going to be difficult for them to some degree. They have to run ahead of Trump and in some cases well ahead of him. And so they need to produce more split-ticket votes.

So currently in the Senate we have our ratings, the Crystal Ball newsletter. We have it tied up 47-47 with six tossups. So the tossup races are in Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. And what’s interesting about that is you sort of have two states that seem to be leaning pretty strongly toward Clinton at this point in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. You have two states that are pretty close in the presidential polls in Nevada and North Carolina. And then you have two states that are very likely to vote for Donald Trump at the presidential level, but have competitive Senate races in Indiana and Missouri, so sort of two, two, and two there. And we can get into the specifics of that, but generally speaking, Democrats have a lot of targets here just because Republicans came into this election cycle defending 24 of the 34 seats that were going to be up. And anytime a party is having to play that level of defense, it’s tough sledding for sure.

And what’s interesting is that Democrats will be in basically the exact same position two years from now, so even if they do take control of the Senate, it will probably only be for two years, because Democrats will be protecting 25 of 33 seats in 2018. Not that we need to spend too much time thinking about the next election when this one isn’t over yet.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. House, Republicans have a sizeable majority. If you ignore the couple of vacancies that are in – and House seats that are safely democratic, essentially we’re operating in a state of play where Republicans hold 247 of the 435 seats, so Democrats just have 188. And so what Democrats have to do is when 30 net seats – to take just the 218 to 217 advantage. That’s a tall order, and before the first debate, I think most people would have put the chances of it happening at about 1 percent or something, I mean, very low probability. But because Clinton now holds the larger lead and the – a common polling question that’s used to try to figure out what the mood of the country is in terms of congressional voting, what’s called the generic ballot test, Democrats are seeing better numbers now. In fact, they currently lead by about six to seven points depending on the polling average on this question.

Their challenge, Democrats’ challenge, is that the map is very friendly to Republicans, in part because of redistricting after the 2010 census was controlled in most states by Republicans, or at least most states where you could potentially have competitive races. A lot of states that will vote for Hillary Clinton and voted for Barack Obama were actually controlled by Republicans, and so the congressional delegations don’t necessarily reflect the statewide presidential leaning of the states. Pennsylvania is a good example; it has 18 congressional seats and has not voted a Republican for president since 1988, yet Republican’s control 13 of the 18 seats in Pennsylvania.

So for Democrats, their challenge is they have a whole lot of marginally Republican seats that they need to win. So the larger margin that Clinton can win by, that may have – that may pull a few Democrats across the finish line.

So as things stand, we still only have Democrats pegged to win maybe 10 to 15 net seats, and they were always going to win some seats just because Republicans had such a large majority and were sort of overextended into seats that Barack Obama won, and in some cases won handily, that they had picked up in 2014. But it is possible that Democrats could win the House. It’s still by far not the likely outcome, but it is possible. And so you – just keeping an eye on that generic ballot poll over the next few weeks, a lot of models and projections suggest the Democrats probably need to be ahead by about 10 points on that question – as I said, they’re ahead by 6 to 7 right now – to have any chance. But at least the possibility of that happening seems to have increased and it’s not completely outside the realm of what is reasonable to anticipate.

And one last thing that I will note is that an interesting curveball that has been thrown into this election is the fact that Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan have sort of – I mean, have split here. Paul Ryan has told members of the Republican House that they should do what they have to do to win re-election, and if that means splitting with Donald Trump, calling for him to withdraw from the race, denouncing him – whatever you need to do, do it, to try to hold onto your seat.

Trump has not responded well to this, obviously, and believes that Republicans are abandoning him, that the leadership doesn’t care, and has even suggested that he – if he’s in a district held by a Republican who has denounced him campaigning, he might even denounce that Republican and tell his supporters not to vote for him – him or her. And this is really unprecedented, best we can tell. And if he actually carries through and follows through on that threat, it’s difficult to say what impact that will have, but I think a real danger for Republicans – if sort of their worst nightmares come true – would be reduced Republican turnout overall because of the way things are going for Trump, and reduced voting down-ballot perhaps because of Trump’s threats, and he actually follows through on that. And you can end up in a situation where Democrats don’t necessarily win a whole lot more votes than you’d expect, but perhaps there will be fewer Republican votes, and that could end up really benefitting Democrats.

So as things stand, the Senate is definitely more or less a 50/50 proposition, though I do think that if Clinton is the favorite to win the presidency – which she definitely is at this point – that probably is good news for Democrats, and I would be more inclined to think that they will narrowly carry the Senate, either by picking up four net seats and having a 50/50 tie that Vice President Tim Kaine would break the tie in Democrats’ favor, or maybe a 51- or 52-seat majority, which again, probably would only hold up for about two years. Where the House is more likely than not going to remain in Republican hands, but Democrats sense that there’s an opening and there very well could be for them to perhaps, amazingly, win a majority.

So that’s where things stand, and I’m now happy to take questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up your headset before pressing the numbers. It has been requested that you limit yourself to one question. For any additional questions, you will need to queue up again. Once again, if you have a question, please press * then 1 at this time. One moment please for the first question.

And we do have something from the line of Rob Gentry. If you can please state your media. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Rob Gentry with TV Asahi, Washington bureau. And I wanted to get your – this is kind of a technical question in a way, but I wanted to dive more into this issue of turnout and down-ballot support and build off of your last point about the curveball, as you called it, with Trump and Ryan. In terms of measuring or predicting, how many voters who otherwise would have been GOP voters will stay home – so by default won’t be voting down ballot, and also how many of them who cannot bring themselves to support Trump for whatever reason but will still make the effort to go to the polls, they’ll do their write-in or whatever it is they’re going to do at the top, and then will vote Republican down the ballot but they’ve made the effort to go to the polls?

It – how do you or other analysts – what background of data do you have to predict that kind of behavior given the sort of unusual nature of this election? Is there survey questions going on now or are there past events that are similar that allow you to make modeling and predictions to get at those percentages of not turning – of voters – GOP voters who are going to sit at home, or those who are going to go and are going to vote the rest of the GOP ticket without voting for Trump?

MR SKELLEY: Yeah, I see I’m on now. So yeah, sure. So it is difficult to say just want turnout is going to look like. In fact, we sort of go back and forth every day on is turnout going to actually be reasonably high, sort of in line with how it’s been in many recent presidential elections – 2004, 2008, and 2012 all had pretty high turnout, relatively speaking. But at the – you have two very unpopular candidates. Does that diminish turnout if the race isn’t all that close? Does that then diminish turnout because closer elections, generally speaking, tend to have higher turnout?

So on the one hand, I can see, like, lower turnout, but on the other, there’s more interest in this election than any recent presidential election in the United States, at least according to data from Pew Research that they put out in June; by even more than in 2008 when, obviously, the possibility of electing the first African American president was on tap. So that might augur for – portend high turnout relatively speaking. So that – so we kind of go back and forth on that question in terms of turnout.

In terms of talking about GOP voters who don’t show up or maybe don’t vote for Trump but do vote Republican down ballot, that is also difficult to put an actual number on. I think what you typically would do is you would look at the breakdown in the polls of people who identify as Republican who are saying that they’re voting for Gary Johnson or Hillary Clinton, because those individuals are still more likely than not going to vote Republican down ballot. And so it’s – and it varies a lot from poll to poll, which can make it difficult to really know for sure on that question.

But for instance, if you’re looking at polling averages, HuffPost Pollster – Huffington Post Pollster is a site that I highly recommend for looking at various data points, and they actually are nice enough to break this data down at least for polls that actually bother to give you what are called cross-tabs, which you can find out information about race and party ID and the like. And so you have a situation where, at the moment, about 5 percent of Republicans say that they would vote for Johnson and about 81 percent saying they would vote for Trump of people who identify as Republican. And then if you are thinking about, like, Democrats down ballot, like 3 percent maybe are saying that they would vote for Johnson. And so just relatively speaking, there are going to be more Republican-leaning voters because actually independents, at least in the last presidential election, skewed slightly Republican in terms of their voting habits.

So I think the way to look at it is that those voters are exactly the kind of people who might not vote for Trump at the top of the ticket but would vote Republican down ballot. Pinning an actual, like, raw total on that is difficult, and as I’ve – especially because what is that percentage out of in terms of overall turnout?

I was asked this question the other day by a reporter, and I put the estimate on overall turnout in the presidential election will probably be somewhere between 120 million and 135 million based on recent elections and sort of – if turnout is diminished comparatively speaking, 120 would be a low, whereas 135 would be higher than in 2008, which was the most recent record for turnout in a presidential election nationally.

So it’s – I think it’s difficult to put just hard numbers on it just because polls vary. But I will say that – you mentioned past examples. And so 1974 – in 1974, there was a notable downtick in the Republican total of the vote in congressional races versus previous elections, whereas Democrats had about the same number of votes. And so I think that was an example because Democrats won a huge number of seats that year in sort of the – in the midst of the post-Watergate fallout. The Republican brand was really damaged. There was diminished Republican turnout because Republicans felt – were not enthused at all because Richard Nixon had just resigned and everything was just really bad for the GOP and its identity, and they – there was just much lower Republican turnout while Democratic turnout remained roughly the same. And that’s an example of how if you’re just lowering the – lessening the denominator. But if one party’s support stays roughly the same while the other’s falls is accounting for most of that falloff, that can change outcomes immensely, and one party can end up winning a huge wave election and gain a whole bunch of seats. So that’s sort of a classic example.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we will go to Anne-Marie Capomaccio. Can you please state your media outlet?

QUESTION: Yes. I am Anne-Marie from Radio France International. And my question is why is it so important for the winner to have the Congress, at least the Senate? Is it possible to do the job without winning at least one chamber?

MR SKELLEY: So for Hillary Clinton, if she wins the Presidency, in order to really accomplish anything that she has – any major thing that she has laid out as a policy goal – something that really particularly comes to mind is something involving comprehensive immigration reform, for example, or things like that – it’s – or some major push on education funding and changing how, like, student loans work in the United States – big things like that are going to take – she’s going to need to have Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate because she’s not going to get a lot of cooperation from a GOP-controlled House or a GOP-controlled Senate. I mean, you think – look at some of the rhetoric in this election and it’s pretty clear that regardless who wins, there’s going to be a lot of questions about legitimacy, a lot of questions about – it would not surprise me that if Clinton wins, that her next four years in office will be essentially a lot of Republicans refusing to cooperate in any way, shape, or form for – even trying to find ways to pursue impeachment charges. I mean, there’s not really any good news on this front in terms of political conflict in the United States.

So for her, if she wants to actually achieve her major policy goals, she needs two years of having the Senate and House in Democratic hands. If there is divided government, very little will happen. And this is particularly true because in the U.S. House, if Democrats fall short of winning back a majority – which, again, seems the most likely outcome – Paul Ryan – if he’s still speaker, because that’s even probably up for question – he will be working with a reduced Republican majority that will be more reliant on winning over support from members of what’s called the House Freedom Caucus, which is the most conservative part of the House Republican conference. Because most of the Republicans who lose in November in House races are going to be more moderate types who had worked with Ryan, and that has all kinds of governing – I mean, that just creates all kinds of governing complications for Ryan and the House in terms of actually trying to work out deals with a Democratic presidential administration.

So basically the only way that anything major happens in U.S. governance in the next two years is if one party gets control of everything. So if somehow Trump wins – which, again, is not likely at all at this point, but you can’t write it off entirely – 25 days left – he would have – almost certainly Republicans would hold onto the Senate narrowly and they would very much control the House. And so in that case, Trump would have time to – I mean, would be leading a unified government where Republicans (inaudible) three major levers of the federal government. So without complete control, not a lot is going to happen because neither party is really able to compromise all that much. I mean, I can imagine all kinds of budget funding crises, debt ceiling crises in the future if you have Republicans with a very narrow majority in the House and a President Clinton. Just trying to come to terms on different things will be very difficult.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And once again, ladies and gentlemen, for any additional comments or questions at this time, if you could please press * and then 1.

And speakers, we have no other questions or comments. Please go ahead.

And I do apologize. We do have something queuing up. One moment please. We’ll get that. And it is a follow-up from Mr. Rob Gentry. Please go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Yeah, thank you, and I just wanted to, yeah, follow-up. It’s a bit down the road here, but if the Senate ends up being – well, actually, it has nothing to do with the Senate per se. If Clinton and Kaine win and Senator Kaine becomes the vice president, the replacement appointed by the governor. And then in that follow-on election, if we postulate that the Senate at that point is 50-50, that special election, I guess, would be for – to determine, in effect, who controls the Senate. Who might be running in that election and how would you foresee that election at this point?

MR SKELLEY: Oh boy. Yeah, well, Virginia – I’m obviously here in Virginia. If Kaine is elected vice president, at some point before his inauguration in the middle of January he will be – he will vacate his Senate seat and Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, will appoint his replacement, who would most likely be Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia. He would be the first African American senator from Virginia. It – so there’s just – I mean, it could potentially be someone else, but he is far and away the expected choice by people who are monitoring this, like me. (Laughter.) He’s the person that we expect to be appointed.

And so there are a few reasons for that, because Virginia is a – is one of the few states that holds gubernatorial elections in off or off-off years, as it’s sometimes called, so odd years – odd-numbered years. Virginia will have a gubernatorial election in 2017, and part of the strategy here was – is probably to try to bolster African American turnout in a lower-turnout election in 2017 with the gubernatorial election going on simultaneously, so – and also, obviously, the history with Scott and he’s the most senior Democrat in the congressional delegation. So there’s a lot that – behind that choice.

So thinking about Senate control and who might be running against Scott as he – after being appointed would almost certainly run for re-election or try to win one more year, which would then – in 2018, that seat is up for its regular election, so you would have to essentially run back-to-back election years, which is pretty wild and costly and time-consuming, of course. There have been a number of Republican names thrown around. Some obvious ones include Dave Brat, who made his name upsetting Eric Cantor in the 7th District’s Republican primary. In 2014, Cantor was the House majority leader at the time and became the first House majority leader to ever lose re-nomination. Brat beat him in the primary. That was a pretty stunning outcome. And Brat has a lot of support among grassroots conservatives and would probably make a pretty strong play for the nomination if he chose to go after it. One of the things to keep in mind here is that members of the House who, if they want to run for this special election in 2017, they don’t have to give up their seat. And so that is a big deal, because usually if you’re going to run for a higher office like the Senate, you wouldn’t be able to run for re-election with – for your U.S. House seat. So this special election gives you an opportunity to sort of have your cake and eat it too.

Barbara Comstock is a more moderate Republican member from northern Virginia who is running in a competitive race for re-election right now. But if she wins re-election, one has to think that she would be another person who would take a hard look at running for the Senate seat. She is an incredible fundraiser and could possibly – and probably would be a better statewide fit than Brat in terms of being competitive statewide. It’s just a question of can she survive, win re-election to her House seat. Because if she loses, then I think it’s more difficult to say that she would run statewide, because she would’ve been in the House for just two years and would be not as well-known perhaps as she’d like to be. And also losing just tends to reflect poorly.

So those are two names that I particularly keep in mind. Another name that’s been bandied about a little bit was Tom Davis, who is a former Republican representative from northern Virginia who has been highly critical of Trump, is very much a moderate Republican. But I think his calculation would be that because the state party decided contentiously that they would actually use a primary to decide their nomination and not a convention system, which went counter to an agreement that was originally made with grassroot forces a couple years ago regarding the 2016 presidential primary – yeah.

So that – so the primary could potentially strengthen moderate Republican forces in the state versus a convention system for picking the nominee. But those are just some names that I’ve heard. It’s not clear, and it could be a crowded field with a primary. It’s also possible that maybe someone who’s running for governor right now might opt to run for Senate instead on the Republican side. But as of yet, that’s not really clear.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we will go to Juliano Basile. If you can please state your media outlet. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yep. Thank you for doing this. This is Juliano Basile from Valor Economico; it’s a Brazilian newspaper. What do you think that is going to happen with TPP after the elections? Do you think that they are going to vote the agreement until the end of the year? And also I would like to know: What do you think that is going to happen with Merrick Garland’s nomination for the Supreme Court? Do you think that there is any possibility that the Senate is going to vote after the elections?

MR SKELLEY: Those are some fun what-if situations. Well, if Clinton wins, the Merrick Garland issue will probably be decided by her behind the scenes to some degree. Now, Republicans can to try to start – perhaps Mitch McConnell could try to start hearings and try to move real quickly on that, but if Hillary Clinton makes it known to Democrats in the Senate – especially if they have just won control of the Senate – she would probably make clear whether or not she wanted that to actually happen. Because at the same time, if Republicans have held onto the Senate, it’s not clear to me what McConnell would do. But if Democrats have taken control of the Senate – but obviously it doesn’t take effect until January – and Clinton has won, I think it will really just come down to what Clinton has decided behind the scenes, whether or not she wants Garland or if she wants to try to pick her own person to fill the seat. And if McConnell tries to start hearings and Clinton doesn’t want Garland and McConnell tries to move along on the confirmation process, you could have a weird situation where Democrats, like, try to stifle him with a filibuster or something.

So I think it’s unclear, obviously. But I guess there is some chance that Garland could actually be confirmed after the election because Republicans decide that it’s better than – the best alternative because Garland is someone that actually many Republican Senators have had high praise for in the past when he was initially appointed to the federal bench, so better than perhaps a more liberal – even more liberal choice by Clinton, and perhaps Clinton would decide that she has other fights she’d rather fight on with initially in her first few months as president than the Supreme Court. So there’ll be maneuvering there, and I think it’s difficult to say for sure.

In terms of TPP, on the other hand, I don’t think TPP has much of a chance there. With the rise of Donald Trump, there has certainly been a shift among many Republican senators who might have been yes votes in the past. I guess it’s possible that a lame-duck Senate – so in the short period of time after the election and before the new Congress is seated – that they could pass it, but there will also be a lot of Democrats who will – who oppose it. And so finding 50 – finding a winning vote for TPP could be very difficult. I would say that you may have more opposition among Democrats than even Republicans. And so it’s just a real hard place, I think, given sort of the turn that the country has had on free trade issues.

It’s interesting, though, because actually, public opinion polls still show that free trade has – is still more popular than not, and is actually supported more by Democrats than Republicans. But it’s – but I think it’s because the opposition forces are particularly vocal. That may push senators to not want to move on that if they – even if they are in a position to do so.

So, yeah, I don’t know how well that answered it, but that’s the best I can tell about those two things.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And if there are any further questions or comments, then a *1 at this time, please. (No response.)

All right, so it looks like we have no further questions. Please go ahead, please.

MODERATOR: Okay. If there are no further questions, then this event is now concluded. We’d like to thank Geoff and our callers for calling in. Thanks again. This event is now concluded.