Donald Trump’s recently unearthed interview implosion has given Democrats their best chance to avoid their worst nightmare. While media speculation centered on Trump’s negative immediate and long-term effects on the Republican Party, Democrats’ darkest secret has been that a Hillary Clinton defeat would be even worse for them.
Apocalyptic predictions were the norm when pundits considered the Republican Party nominating Donald Trump before it did. Certainly they would lose the presidential race, but that was just the beginning. They would lose in a landslide and feel the effect down the ballot, too. Loss of the Senate was a given, and the House was also a possibility.
Nor would losses end this year, as voters pulled away from the GOP. In full hyperbole, many liberal commentators gleefully predicted the party’s demise.
Just after the conventions, Clinton did appear to be pulling away. That trajectory quickly stalled. As October began, the race was virtually tied. Then came Trump’s 2005 interview bomb. The result has been the race’s biggest movement in months. During the week before the interview’s release, Rasmussen polling had Trump up 43 to 41 percent. On October 11, Rasmussen found Clinton leading 44 to 39 percent—even higher than Clinton’s post-convention bounce.
The Race Had Been Looking Grim for Democrats
Democrats had every reason to worry before this. Not only was Clinton not pulling away, congressional races were hardly looking like lopsided Republican losses. In last week’s projections, RealClearPolitics had the Senate split 50 to 50. In the House, RCP had Republicans holding 231 seats and Democrats 189—even if the 15 toss-up seats all went Democratic, Republicans would still hold a 27-seat majority.
Such possible congressional outcomes, coupled with a Clinton loss, would devastate Democrats. Democrats would have lost a great opportunity, especially in the Senate. Currently Republicans hold a 54-46 edge. Thirty-four seats are up for election this year. Republicans hold 24 of these seats; Democrats only 10. That gives Democrats an enormous chance to win Republican seats without risking their own. If RCP projections were correct and Democrats picked up just four seats, Republicans would have dodged a bullet.
The same applies in the House. With 246 seats, Republicans hold their largest majority since 1928. Democrats currently have just 186 seats (three House seats are vacant). Failure to further erode—if not eliminate—the Republican majority would be another missed opportunity.
Both these congressional outcomes would be more than simple misfires. A Trump victory added to them would mean Republicans controlled Congress, too. Republican numbers would give him outright House control and, with Mike Pence as vice president (who casts the tie-breaking vote there) Republicans would also control the Senate.
Congressional impact does not stop there. Just as 2016 tilts heavily against Senate Republicans, due to defending a disproportionate number of seats, 2018 will for Democrats—only worse. In two years, Democrats must defend 25 seats and Republicans only eight. Failure to lock in a majority in 2016 could threaten to push Democrats into a serious minority after 2018.
Democrats Face Serious Divisions Either Way
Serious as these congressional ramifications could be, the potential impact on Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination contest is even bigger. Should the outsider Trump lose, the Republican establishment can be expected to reassert itself in 2020. Should Clinton lose, the opposite likely occurs for Democrats.
Hillary is the Democratic establishment. She was eight years ago, too, when she lost to the outsider Barack Obama. However, Democrats have done extremely well with Obama. Without Clinton and her establishment, the Democratic Party won the presidency twice with popular vote majorities—something no Democrat had done since Franklin Roosevelt.
In 2016, the Democratic establishment reasserted itself, giving Clinton the nomination—but only their dominance in superdelegates beat back another insurgent. Should Clinton lose now—especially to Trump—her defeat would be the establishment’s, too. Insiders will say anyone but Clinton would have won over an opponent like Trump. Only forsaking their more liberal elements—as represented by Bernie Sanders now and Obama eight years ago—allowed their party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
With their establishment discredited, Democrats’ liberal wing would return in force in 2020, more energized and assuredly led by an even stronger candidate than Sanders.
Trump’s latest, and apparently largest, self-inflicted wound has pushed Democrats’ worst-case scenario further back in their collective mind—at least for the moment. Trump has proven as uncommonly resilient as he has unconventionally political.
If Trump rebounds from this, Democrats’ anxiety should be even more amplified. A close race would not mean defeat’s consequences would be. Democrats’ potential fallout in Congress at least equals Republicans’, while the likely impact on the Democratic Party’s establishment would be far greater. It could set the stage for Democrats facing what Republicans faced this year: an insurgency they cannot control.