Why Republican Kneecapping of Trump Won’t Work

The American Research Group (ARG) gets a C+ grade in Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight pollster ratings. They are punished modestly for having a slight Republican bias, and punished heavily for only calling the correct winner in 75% of the 260 polls that Silver analyzed. In other words, they’re less partisan hacks than just crappy pollsters. They do not appear to be good at their jobs.

This could explain why they are the only polling outfit that sees Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire with a lead in her reelection bid against Democrat Maggie Hassan. ARG gives Ayotte a comfortable nine-point lead, outside the margin of error, while three other recent polls have shown the race essentially tied (Public Policy Polling: Hassan +2, WBUR/MassInc: Hassan +1, Boston Herald/FPU: Ayotte +1).

In any case, Ayotte’s reelection prospects are a thin reed to rely on if you want to rationalize Mitch McConnell’s kneecapping of Donald Trump as an essentially rational decision to cut bait on the Oval Office and focus on preserving his Senate majority. Here’s Allahpundit of the right-wing blog, HotAir:

Let’s recap McConnell’s choicer soundbites about Trump over the past two months. On May 4th, the day after Trump won Indiana and Cruz and Kasich dropped out, McConnell endorsed him, albeit tepidly. A month later, after watching Trump spend several weeks talking about the “Mexican” judge in his civil suit instead of Hillary Clinton, McConnell urged him at a press conference to get on message. Three days after that, he tore Trump apart in an interview with Bloomberg, admitting “it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t know a lot about the issues” and hinting that he might yet rescind his endorsement. After that, he stopped taking questions about Trump at his weekly press briefings altogether. Then, two days ago, he was asked on “This Week” whether Trump is qualified to be president. He dodged, saying that’s for voters to decide. And so we arrive at today, with McConnell responding to a question about whether he thinks Trump is a “credible” candidate for the presidency with this withering backhanded reply: “He’s getting closer.”

Question: Does Mitch McConnell want Trump to win? Before you answer, note that when he was asked about Hillary Clinton in this same interview, he described her as “intelligent and capable.” If I told you that Mitch the Knife had described one candidate in a certain race as capable and the other as not quite credible (yet), which one would you assume he’s supporting?

The obvious explanation for his hedging on Trump is that he’s trying to protect his caucus. He had to endorse him for the same reason Paul Ryan did, because it’s unthinkable for a Republican congressional leader to hold out for long on a Republican nominee, but I’m sure McConnell cares more about retaining a Senate majority than he does about Trump winning the White House. If Trump falls far behind Clinton later this summer, McConnell and other top Republicans will shift quickly to a “Save the Senate!” message encouraging ticket-splitting. He’s laying the groundwork for that now: If you’re an independent who’s disgusted with Trump, well, just know that your friendly neighborhood Republican majority leader shares your disgust and strongly believes you shouldn’t punish Republican incumbents for Trump’s sins. So far, it’s working!

The evidence Allahpundit provides that this strategy is working is the aforementioned ARG poll and a generic congressional preference poll from NBC/Wall Street Journal that shows the public tied 46%-46% between Republicans and Democrats. Yet, the overall Real Clear Politics polling average on this question gives the Democrats a two point advantage, and the latest Fox News poll gives the Dems a five point edge.

To his credit, Allahpundit seems to understand that McConnell is engaged in risky business:

The more McConnell and other big-name Republicans badmouth Trump, the more Republican voters who are skeptical of Trump may take it as a green light to abandon him at the top of the ticket so long as they vote in congressional races. We’ve seen several polls lately showing that Trump’s support among Republicans has begun to lag Clinton’s support among Democrats, making his task this fall that much harder. He needs a unified party to stand a solid chance of winning, but the more unified the party is, the easier it’ll be for Democrats to connect Republicans down-ballot to Trump. McConnell’s trying to play a game right now where he both is and isn’t behind the nominee, having endorsed him formally while spending nearly every opportunity since then tearing him down. He’s taking a serious gamble in betting that attacking Trump will somehow inoculate the Senate instead of helping to send Trump crashing to a landslide defeat that ends up dragging the whole party down with him. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating that I don’t think the GOP leadership can be “half-pregnant” towards their nominee. Either they’re all-in for a big win or it’s time to cut him loose. The fact that McConnell keeps kneecapping him suggests that he’s already resigned himself to Trump’s defeat and is doing what he can now to create some distance.

I basically agree with this analysis. I’d add that the way downballot races work in presidential elections, it’s more important that the top of the ticket doesn’t get swamped than it is that you can convince some folks to split their tickets. People will not show up to vote if they’re unwilling to support anyone on the top of the ticket, and if they’re only showing up to vote for the other party’s candidate, you’re going to get stomped. For a ticket-splitting strategy to work, the top race has to remain at least modestly competitive.

So, my money is not on McConnell or Ayotte or any of the other vulnerable senators and representatives who think they can survive by tearing Trump down. A collapse at the top will cascade down and wash away these folks like so much flotsam and jetsam.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.