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Trump Is Getting Great People (for the Wrong Side)

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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It’s already too late for Republicans to avoid some of the damage Donald Trump will do to their prospects in congressional elections this year.

How can we know this now? After all, it's still unclear if he will get the GOP nomination or, if he does, if he'll do as badly in the general election as polls now say he will. If he's the party's standard-bearer, and if Republicans unite around him, he will almost certainly wind up somewhat more popular than he is now. 

Yet even if things go really well for Republicans at the presidential level in November, Trump already has cost them.

This is because partisan swings in congressional elections -- like those Republicans took advantage of in 2010 and 2014 and Democrats exploited in 2006 and 2008 -- work in two different ways.

There is the direct effect: Voters turn against a party or its president, and seek to punish those running for office from that party.

But indirect effects are important too, and can matter even if voters in House and Senate contests have no larger partisan motives at all. This is because expectations in congressional elections can be self-fulfilling.

If “everyone” believes 2016 will be a good year for Democrats, for example, then Democrats will recruit a strong field of politicians, while Republicans will struggle to find good candidates. Donors and other activists will react to expected conditions, too, making a maximum effort if things seem to be going well or, by contrast, saving their money and effort for another year if things look bad.

In a good year for the party favored by national conditions, then, voters in many districts will see strong, well-funded candidates with professional campaigns.  For the party facing adversity at the national level, the candidates will be weaker. Even if times have changed by Election Day, some voters may well favor the stronger candidates, regardless of party. 

That’s the theory (see Gary Jacobson and Jamie Carson, "The Politics of Congressional Elections"). It explains, among other things, the Republican blowout in the House in 2010. Not only did Barack Obama’s approval ratings stink that year. Republicans also benefited from the vast difference between the quality of their challengers to Democratic incumbents (measured by political experience) and that of Democratic challengers to Republicans.

This year, more experienced Democrats are choosing to run for the House, putting Republican-held seats in play. For example, the Cook Political Report this week downgraded one Minnesota seat from “likely” Republican to only “lean” Republican, after a Democratic state senator whom Cook analyst David Wasserman considered a “good fit” for the district jumped into the race.

Overall, quite a few more Republican seats than Democratic seats are in jeopardy so far this cycle, many of them because of such strategic decisions by politicians. Even if Republicans manage to solve their top-of-the-ticket troubles (or if Hillary Clinton proves to be an unusually weak candidate for the Democrats), a lot is locked in already for the 2016 cycle.

And what if the presidential election really is a blowout for Democrats? It’s possible, though still unlikely, that Democrats could wind up with unified control of Congress.

  1. Democrats had already put together a strong recruitment record in Senate races before Trump started running. This may be because, back in early 2015, when those decisions were being made, many Democrats believed Hillary Clinton would be an unusually strong presidential candidate. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net