Updated Oct. 11, 2016 7:27 p.m. ET
The exercise in GOP self-preservation prompted, ostensibly, by the leaked recording of Donald Trump’s lewd remarks was necessary and a long time coming. The question is whether Republicans in Congress have waited too long to part ways publicly with their party’s presidential nominee.
Mr. Trump’s second debate performance was better than his first one in some respects and good enough to keep running mate Mike Pence from abandoning the ticket. Other Republican officeholders, however, are unpersuaded. They’ve concluded that Mr. Trump is not only losing the presidential race but also seriously jeopardizing Republican control of the House and Senate. GOP leaders in Congress—including House Speaker Paul Ryan,who now says he will not campaign with Mr. Trump or otherwise defend him—are convinced that the billionaire is damaged goods. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likewise telling his caucus members that they have no obligation to support the top of the ticket.
The GOP panic is warranted. If Mr. Trump hasn’t matured in the past 70 years, he’s unlikely to do so in the next 27 days. There’s “locker-room talk,” and then there’s telling Howard Stern that it’s OK to refer to your daughter as “a piece of ass.”
Mr. Trump’s debate performance shored up his base. That needed doing—which is the problem. A presidential candidate who is still playing primarily to his base less than a month before Election Day is a presidential candidate in trouble. Republican support for Mr. Trump has never been deep; pluralities carried him to the nomination. National polls that include Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Steinhave seldom shown Mr. Trump winning more than 40% support, and he’s underperforming all previous GOP presidential candidates among college-educated whites, a group that his opponent is carrying by double-digits.
Mr. Trump and his surrogates continue to cite the size of his rallies as a reliable indicator of widespread GOP enthusiasm for his candidacy. And there he was in Pennsylvania on Tuesday relishing in the “Lock her up” chants from the crowd. But a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey is the latest in a string of polls that show Hillary Clinton with more support among Democratic voters (88%) than Mr. Trump enjoys among Republicans (83%). If Mr. Trump had an enthusiasm edge, it’s long gone. Fading support for Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stein has redounded to Democrats.
After Sunday’s debate, Mrs. Clinton released ads highlighting her growing support among independents and disaffected Republicans. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, took to feuding with Mr. Ryan and the GOP establishment on social media. When Mr. Trump isn’t reinforcing concerns about his view of women or his grasp of policy, he’s reinforcing concerns about his temperament.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Mrs. Clinton ahead in every battleground state except Arizona and Iowa. The WSJ poll shows her leading him by nine points among likely voters in a four-way race that includes Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stein. Republicans are walking away from Mr. Trump because he’s become what Ronald Brownstein of the Atlantic calls “a political black hole” for the party.
According to the Pew Research Center, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 48% to 44%, so merely maximizing candidate Trump’s GOP support won’t produce a Republican president. Republicans need to expand their appeal to independents and Democrats, two groups that Mr. Trump went out of his way to alienate on Sunday night. Trying to turn the debate into a referendum on Mrs. Clinton’s marriage plays well with people who are almost certainly already voting for the businessman, but it’s a loser with most of the distaff voters that Mr. Trump can’t win without. If he wanted to run against Bill Clinton, he’s 20 years too late.
Anti-Trump Republican officials are now hoping that split-ticket voting—whereby a voter chooses candidates from different parties on the same ballot—will help them salvage their legislative majorities. If Mrs. Clinton wins next month, Democrats need to net four seats in the Senate and 30 in the House to gain control of both chambers. Republican strategist Whit Ayres has argued that although split-ticket voting is much less common today, both parties have benefited from it in the past and Mr. Trump’s unconventional candidacy could revive it.
“Let’s not forget that in the South in the 1970s and ’80s, Democratic senators frequently won overwhelming victories at the same time that George McGovern was cratering in 1972 and Walter Mondale was cratering in 1984 throughout the South,” Mr. Ayres said on the “Journal Editorial Report” on Fox News in August. “ Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton [in 1996] by 8.5 percentage points. The average Republican House incumbent ran 16 points ahead of Bob Dole in that year and they lost only five seats. There’s a record of doing this in difficult environments.”
Difficult? Try surreal.
Tags: Anti-Trump Republicans, Bill Clinton grass roots campaign, called his daughter a piece of ass, Congress, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Hillary Clinton, Howard Stern, Lock Her Up, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, political correctness, Republicans, Republicans in Congress, Trump’s lewd remarks