Hillary Clinton likely will win the presidential race, but only by 3-5% of the popular vote, while Democrats will probably take back the Senate and Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives.
Those were some of the observations by Charlie Cook, author of the influential Cook Political Report, during an Arkansas Economic Developers luncheon Monday (Aug. 29)sponsored by Talk Business & Politics.
Cook, whose parents are from Magnolia, said the race pits two unpopular candidates against each other. Clinton has a 43-53% favorability rating – a -10 net differential that normally is not good enough to win. But Donald Trump’s rating is 34-61%, a -27 point differential.
“If Republicans had nominated a potted plant, they’d have had a pretty good chance to win,” he said.
Cook said there’s a high probability Clinton will win, but only by a 3-5 point margin because she has such high negatives. She will end up with a vote percentage in the mid-40s while Trump will win 40-41% of the vote. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson could get 10% and Green Party candidate Jill Stein could win 3%. Neither of the third party candidates will affect the results, he said.
Trump could win if an external event occurs such as a terrorist attack, or if a Clinton scandal appears. However, Trump is hurt by the fact he is not releasing his income tax returns, leading to questions about why not.
“The odds of him winning are going further, further and further down,” he said.
Republicans also face two headwinds. Eighteen states plus Washington, D.C., have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate each of the last six elections. Those 18 states’ 242 Electoral College votes leave the Democrats only 28 short of the 270 needed for victory. In contrast, 13 states with 103 Electoral College votes have voted for the Republican in the last six elections.
Meanwhile, the nation’s demographics have changed. In 1992, 87% of the electorate was white. In 2016, it will be about 70%.
“You can’t win anymore by doubling down on being a white party,” he said. “The math doesn’t work anymore.”
Calling this “the craziest year we’ve ever had in terms of presidential politics,” Cook said that it was foreseeable that Clinton would be the Democrats’ nominee after a tough fight, but not that the fight would be against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Meanwhile, Republicans went against their recent history of nominating establishment candidates by choosing Trump. Cook said the party’s move in that direction was telegraphed in August 2011, when U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman, R-Minn., won the Iowa Straw Poll and then became the first of many anti-establishment candidates who briefly led in the GOP primary before Republicans finally settled, reluctantly, on the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney.
“The Republicans in 2012, they clearly wanted to do something outside of the box, something different, and I think it reflected a lot of real changes within the Republican Party,” he said.
None of the GOP’s establishment candidates gained momentum in the race this year. By April, Trump was a polarizing candidate with 41% of the vote. In normal circumstances, the party would coalesce behind an establishment candidate. But by the end, the other choices were Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. The establishment hated Cruz, whom Cook described as extremely smart but not likable. Kasich on paper would seem to be a good candidate, but he never gained momentum, in part because he is unfocused and undisciplined with a hot temper. At the same time, Republicans were reluctant to get into a fight with Trump and were afraid of his supporters.
Cook said Republicans have been involved in a longstanding argument about whether they should keep nominating supposed moderate-conservatives or instead nominate a more conservative candidate. That debate has been put off at least four years because they nominated an “ideologically androgynous” candidate. For now, he said, “I don’t think there’s a constructive end to this for Republicans.”
But for every problem held by one party, the other party has a corresponding one, and both have “enormous self-destructive tendencies,” Cook said. The Democrats’ center of gravity may have moved closer to Sanders than it is to Clinton.
“I think Republicans are just going to spend a few more years in the wilderness, but, you know, Democrats, they’ll overreach,” he said.
The real action is in the Senate, where the GOP is trying to hold onto a 54-46 majority. Cook said 10 GOP seats are in danger – “Arkansas is not one,” he said – while only one Democratic seat in Nevada is in play. Republicans must defend 24 of the 34 seats up for grabs. Seven are in states carried by President Obama in 2012, while no Democratic senators are defending seats won by Romney.
He thinks the result will be perhaps a 50-50 tie, with the vice president serving as the tiebreaker. He said others are expecting a bigger margin for the Democrats, but he thinks Republican candidates will soon persuasively make the argument that voters must choose them in order to prevent Clinton from having a “blank check.”
The House of Representatives will not switch parties, he said. Democrats would need a 30-seat gain, which they are not going to achieve.
Cook predicted Republicans in the lame-duck session will confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, and Clinton would not oppose them doing so because she doesn’t want a Supreme Court fight in her first 100 days. She’ll instead want to start with a infrastructure program and a tax reform deal with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. He thinks Clinton will do a better job of working with Congress than Obama, who has no interest in doing so.