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Why a predictable Clinton victory might be the GOP's best hope

Clinton voters and anti-Trump voters aren't going to split their tickets for House and Senate. The GOP's best hope is an election as boring and predictable as 1996.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As mainstream Republicans of all ideologies grapple with the week-old reality that Donald Trump is their presumptive presidential nominee, it's evident that some of them, perhaps including House Speaker Paul Ryan, are in effect closing their eyes and hoping that when the election is over, everything will be back to normal.

"Normal," in this sense, would mean the familiar situation of a Democratic president whom they can rail against and obstruct without much accountability, along with Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

For these Republicans, the question is no longer whether they can win back the White House or whether a Trump presidency would serve conservative goals, but whether they can write off the presidential election and still win — that is, can they maintain the gains they made in the House and Senate in 2010 and 2014, let the White House fall to Hillary Clinton, and count on voter backlash in 2018 and 2020 to bring them back to a comfortable place?  Think of it like a company taking a write-down on a costly mistake.

MSNBC has reported that the wealthy, libertarian Koch brothers would invest no resources into the presidential race, instead spending heavily on House and Senate races. Art Pope, a Koch ally in North Carolina, has said the same thing.

How can Republicans win Senate and House races in states where Trump is likely to do poorly in the general election?

The most obvious tactic would be for Republican candidates, and the outside spending groups that back them, to encourage ticket splitting. By rejecting Trump, or parsing their position with phrases like "I'll support the nominee" without using the word "endorse," these candidates hope to show their independence and win votes from Clinton supporters or, more accurately, anti-Trump voters.

But as party alignments have tightened, ticket splitting has become almost a non-factor in American politics — in 2012, only 5.7 percent of congressional districts elected a representative from a party other than the one that won the district's presidential vote. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan won reelection, 44 percent of districts had split results — mostly districts won by Reagan and a conservative Democrat.

Unless Trump does far better in their states than expected, for senators like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire or Mark Kirk of Illinois to hold on to their seats would require a level of split voting not seen for very many years.

In the last presidential election year, for example, only a single Republican senator was elected in a state won by Obama — and even that senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, won a three-way race with virtually the same 45 percent of the vote as Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the same state, and fewer votes in total. (Nevada also has a "none of the above" option.) Heller didn't need a single Obama supporter to split her ticket in order to win. In 2008, the only Republican senator to win a state carried by Obama was the untouchable Susan Collins of Maine.

But persuading Clinton voters to split their tickets is not the only way congressional Republicans could hold on. The key variable in American electoral politics is not whom voters decide to vote for, but who votes. When the electorate is larger, younger, and more diverse, Democrats do well. When it's smaller, older, and whiter, Republicans have the advantage. That's why fights over rules that expand or shrink the electorate, such as voter identification laws and early voting hours, have been so contentious.

Those rules matter, but not as much as the calendar or simply what year it is. Turnout in a year divisible by four — a presidential year — is not just a little higher than in a midterm election; it's a completely different population. Even in 2012's relatively low-turnout presidential, according to data from Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, turnout of the voting-eligible population was 58.6 percent. Two years later, only 36.7 percent of eligible voters participated.

Census data show that in the presidential year, 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted; in 2014, it was only 16 percent. Black turnout in 2012 was even higher than white turnout, at 67 percent; it fell by almost half in 2014. Latino turnout also fell by half over the two years, so that the non-Hispanic white share of the electorate rose to almost 80 percent.

And the results followed the electorate. In the two Obama-era midterm elections, 2010 and 2014, nine Republican senators were elected in states that Obama had won two years earlier. And both elections brought sweeping Republican gains in the House. Democratic strategists dream of building an organizing apparatus that can mobilize young and nonwhite voters in the next midterm election, but midterm after midterm passes and it hasn't happened.

So if you were a smart Republican strategist, your best hope — your only hope — might be to produce the equivalent of a midterm electorate in a presidential year. That seems unlikely, especially as most election analysis assumes there will be massive turnout of Latino voters in particular, reacting to Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as younger voters and women alienated by his sexist and generally hateful invective.

What if "stop Trump" doesn't seem urgent?

But what if by Election Day, "stop Trump" doesn't seem particularly urgent to those voters? What if after Labor Day, everyone kind of knows how the election will turn out and there's no urgency to voting against Trump except to register a symbolic protest against his brand of intolerance and ignorance? There would be, in effect, no live presidential contest.

In the heat of this moment, that hardly seems possible. The past four presidential races have been hotly contested almost until Election Day, including one that was decided weeks later by the Supreme Court. But just four years earlier, in 1996, Bill Clinton's victory over Sen. Bob Dole was widely anticipated. As a result, voter turnout was the lowest in modern history, at 51 percent. That's still 10 percentage points higher than the previous midterm election, but that's a much smaller gap than the 22 points between 2012 and 2014.

Because of the low turnout, Clinton underperformed the polls, falling just short of a majority of the popular vote. And in the down-ballot races, it looked more like a midterm, with Republicans gaining three seats in the Senate to expand their majority.

Like 1996, Clinton has the opportunity to do what her husband did to Dole in 1996, which is to essentially disqualify her opponent early, during a period when Trump won't have any money to spend. Bill Clinton did it by stretching the campaign finance rules of the day, using soft money to slam Dole in the gap between his securing the nomination and receiving his public funding for the general election.

Hillary Clinton, as reported by the Associated Press, intends to do something similar. The scale of spending, through Super PACs and other vehicles, is many times what it was two decades ago, and she can take advantage of the fact that Trump doesn't have a real fundraising apparatus yet, and doesn't intend to spend his own money at the level of modern campaigns, which total roughly a billion dollars.

Trump is no Bob Dole, and it's unlikely he will go off quietly to the land of lobbying and Viagra ads, as Dole did. (The latter is literally the last thing Donald Trump would do, unless they put his name on the pills.) But it might be as difficult to mobilize voters in such an uncompetitive environment as it was 20 years ago.

Is a midterm-like turnout likely? No. Even if the Republican National Committee ignores him and spends nothing on his behalf, Donald Trump is loud, he's present, and he will be heard. "Stop Trump" may be only a symbolic act, but it will be an important one, one that will show the essential decency of the vast majority of American voters.

All the same, if Republicans and conservatives want to hold on to their gains, a low-turnout, noncompetitive, boring presidential election, one that their candidate loses, is surely their last, best hope.

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