The entire Republican Party was on pins and needles last night waiting to see what Trump would do. After a 48-hour meltdown following the release of a recording in which Donald Trump bragged of committing sexual assault, the 2nd presidential debate was Trump’s last chance to salvage a campaign on life support.
His running mate Mike Pence had canceled all his appearances amid rumors he might abandon the campaign. His supposed campaign manager KellyAnne Conway had been incommunicado in the hours leading up to the debate. Republican politicians were unendorsing him by the dozens, and the NRC had pulled the plug on its fundraising. Everything stood on a precipice, ready for the entire party infrastructure to leave Trump hanging in the wind.
Trump began the evening by holding a sordid and exploitative press event with Bill Clinton’s much-publicized accusers, which seemed to be the beginning of the end for him. But once the debate began in earnest, Trump managed to avoid a repeat of his first debate performance and avoided the total meltdown some had perhaps anticipated. Hillary Clinton had a very solid night and won easily, but didn’t deliver any knockout punches to put the election away for good.
It’s important to note, of course, that I’m grading Trump on a very low curve. He was unable to formulate any coherent policy answers, he threatened to jail his opponent, he lied constantly about easily verifiable things, rambled and interrupted incessantly, and his physical presence on stage ranged from cringeworthy to stalkerish. But that’s normal for Trump, and that behavior has been adequate to earn him the support of 40% of Americans. To self-destruct during the debate, he would have had to be worse than his usual self–which he wasn’t.
But while he avoided an implosion, Trump still lost the debate badly as two post-debate polls showed: a YouGov poll gave Clinton a 47-42 win, while a CNN/ORC poll (with a considerable Democratic sample skew) showed Clinton with a dominant 57-34 advantage.
The problem for Trump is that while he may have temporarily stemmed some of the bleeding from his Access Hollywood scandal, he needed a big win. Even before the recording aired, Trump was down by an average of four to five points in national polling and trailed in almost every battleground state. Trump didn’t get it, and is still on pace to lose the election by a significant margin.
But Trump’s dilemma is less interesting than that of the GOP as a whole. The Republican Party was ready to walk away from Trump entirely, declare his entire candidacy and nomination a giant mistake, and try to salvage as many of their candidates as they could downballot. They knew it would come at the cost of alienating Trump’s hardcore base, but they were prepared to pay that price–after all, those voters aren’t about to vote for Democrats, and the worst they could do was stay home or vote third party. Alternatively, the GOP needed Trump to notch a big debate win, force Clinton into a gaffe, and regain the initiative.
The GOP got neither. Trump did well enough that they can’t credibly abandon ship: Mike Pence tweeted his commitment to the campaign and KellyAnne Conway made her congratulatory media rounds. But Trump did badly enough that he’ll still likely drag down a large number of downballot Republicans to defeat alongside him.
Now the Republican Party is in an even worse bind than it was before the debate. They can’t live with Trump, and they can’t live without him.