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Yes, October Surprises Can Skew November Results

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’d be nice to be able to tell you how this craziest week of a crazy campaign will affect the final vote totals on Nov. 8. 

But I can’t. Neither can anyone else. We’d be bluffing if we claimed we could.  

Normally, the job of political scientists like me is to caution everyone that the latest gaffe or political ad or campaign event won’t matter on Election Day. This was the gist of what I wrote a week ago: I suggested that most polling swings back and forth over the last few months have probably been illusions, and that there was a good chance Hillary Clinton has had a lead of 4 to 6 percentage points throughout.

It’s what political scientist Matthew Dickinson said on Sunday in response to the "Access Hollywood" tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault: “Count me as one who thinks that Trump’s ‘latest’ comments (made in 2005) – as reprehensible as they are – are unlikely to have nearly the impact on this race that the pundits claim.”

But what has happened since the release of the Trump tape changes the equation. Dozens of GOP elected officials and other high-visibility Republicans are abandoning their nominee, and Trump is now publicly slamming House Speaker Paul Ryan and others in the party for disavowing him. 

Since nothing remotely like this kind of party split has happened in the modern era of public polling, we have no idea how it will affect voter choice and turnout. All we can say is that it certainly might matter.

Yes, partisanship is strong for many voters. It overwhelms a lot. But the Republican Party is now in a public fight over what real Republicans should do. This means voters are cross-pressured. The cue of partisanship no longer tells them what to do.

Of course, when push comes to shove, most Republican voters will back the nominee. And pundits will say, accurately, that many Republican voters hate their party’s “establishment,” so they’ll side with Trump.

But “most” isn’t enough. It would have an enormous effect if 1 in 20 people who would normally vote Republican switch to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, or to independent Evan McMullin; or write in Mike Pence or some other party leader’s name, or just stay home. For every Republican who actually votes for Clinton, the impact is double.

And while we know how strong partisanship is in normal elections, we also know that it’s at least possible for voters to follow the lead of those in their party’s elite who break with an unappealing candidate. This is what happened to Missouri Republican Todd Akin in his 2012 Senate bid after his remarks about “legitimate rape” caused outrage. Many in the party’s elite dumped him -- and Akin wound up losing 55 percent to 39 percent in a state that leans Republican.

This is not to predict that Trump is headed for a double-digit loss. All we can say is that he was almost certainly losing before the latest round of craziness began; that a Republican civil war is unlikely to help him; and that he could be harmed by it, to an extent we can’t even speculate on yet. 

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