Carl Beijer makes a point that, contrary to his intentino, underscores an utter brilliance of the Clinton campaign this time around.
Beijer’s point, in a nutshell, is that, because Trump is so unpopular, Clinton can make an electoral killing by tarring and feathering the entire Republican Party with Trump. Indeed, this is what a recent WaPo Monkey Cage post contends. The problem is that there is no evidence that the Republican voters would necessarily vote against Trump down the ballot, even if they might vote for a Gary Johnson with their presidential vote. They can tell that Trump is not a real Republican and a lot of GOP establishment is trying to make that point. The bigger threat for the Republicans is that their voters may not even turn out at all–but this presents a more complex challenge because, for what it is worth, the demographics that tend to vote Republican–college educated, affluent, female, and white tend to turn out and are most “partisan”–even though they are also precisely the demographics that distrust Trump most.
The electoral characteristics of the voters who distrust Trump most implies the possibility that Beijer misses (but is implicitly addressed by Nate Cohn at NYT) If Trump looks sufficiently like a regular Republican, many regular Republican voters might reconsider and vote for Trump as they would any other Republican. By disassociating Trump and the regular Republican voters, Clinton is recognizing the power of partisanship in vote choice. Are they right? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the patterns noticed by Cohn suggests that the Clintons are more right than the naive leftists who think that the entire Republican Party can be hammered with Trump: I don’t see Democrats winning House seats in Republican districts in Georgia or Louisiana, any more than the Republicans could capture the House in 1984. Republicans and Trump are different entities and the former has more electoral life beyond 2016.
PS. One might describe the Democratic problem as a choice between a high risk strategy and a low risk one. If the Democrats try to tar all the Republicans through their association with Trump, they could conceivably win across the board, or help Trump consolidate Republican support. As it were, the Republicans and Trump are doing pretty good job tearing each other down so that extra help from the Democrats probably is not necessary on that department, and, if anything, an external threat, in form of coming from Democratic attacks, could help them unify. This is dangerous for the Democrats because, if Trump can both make serious inroads among the working class whites and retain regular Republican support, he runs a realistic chance of victory. But, by trying to concede the Republicans down the ballot some electoral room at the cost of depriving Trump of support from the regular Republicans, Clinton ensures that Trump will be totally defeated. The role of partisanship in vote choice is such that, as long as Trump is THE Republican nominee, possible victory remains within reach, as long as regular Republican voters remain Republicans. They will not become “Democrats” any more than Democratic voters started voting for Republican candidates for Congress just because of Walter Mondale–they didn’t. However tempting the thought of overwhelming victory across the board taking advantage of Trump’s seeming unpopularity might be, it is important to recognize that Trump is unpopular largely because he is unpopular with the Republicans because he’s not Republican enough. Carville and Greenberg, for all their smugness, do know the polls, and these are what polls have been telling us for a long time.
PPS. The somewhat more succinct version of this argument, with input from one of my friends, is that, in order to trumpify all the Republicans, Clinton campaign has to convince Republican voters that the Republican officeholders are not real Republicans, but crazy alt-right looneytoons. This is not easy. Of course, to win them back, Trump has to convince the same voters that, compared to him, Clinton is a tax-and-spend liberal of the old sort. This, too, is a difficult sell–especially since, in a way, she has very much staked her ground as a Republican Lite. Peculiarly enough, given where she has established her reputation, trying to tear down Trump as a Republican, rather than attack the Republican Party via Trump makes sense for Clinton. Somewhat ironically, a more conventional campaign–and expected votes–might have been waged had the matchup been between Sanders and Trump.