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OPINION

With all the chaos, the shape of the US presidential race is unchanged

By STUART ROTHENBERG | CQ Roll Call | Published: October 28, 2020

With less than one week until Election Day, you don’t need another column from me on swing voters or key states. You don’t need more of my analysis of President Donald Trump’s style and how that has affected the race. You don’t need more of my thoughts on the suburbs or partisan polarization, or which Senate races will be crucial and who has the edge in the fight for control.

Sometimes, enough is enough. I’ve already told you what I think about all those things and how I got here. The shape of the presidential contest has not changed fundamentally since early 2019, when I started handicapping the race. The president had plenty of opportunities to change things. He simply chose not to, or maybe (as in the case with COVID-19) he just was not up to the task.

As most readers know, I once rated House and Senate races in my newsletter, which has become “Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.” I decided to use the same categories to rate the presidential contest this cycle that I used for years in rating congressional races.

On Jan. 3, 2019, I looked at Trump’s standing, the 2018 results and the Democratic race and concluded, “There are too many questions surrounding the president’s reelection prospects to call the race even, and there are too many opportunities for the Democrats to blunder toward a weak general election nominee to rate the race Leans Democratic.”

So, I rated the presidential contest as “Toss-up/Tilting Democratic.”

About 14 months later, after watching Democrats move toward Joe Biden, I moved the race to “Lean Democratic.” As I wrote in a March 18 column, “Democrats are likely to be united in the fall, and President Donald Trump’s standing is stuck where it has been for many months. There are also more questions about presidential leadership and the economy, which the president has been relying on to help him win a second term.”

On June 29, for all of the reasons I’ve been talking about since early June, I moved the race again, to “Likely Biden.”

The Trump campaign never changed the trajectory of the race. The contest is still a referendum on the president, and he has never sought to broaden his appeal.

It’s often said that a campaign reflects the values and leadership style of the candidate. Nothing could be more true this year, which is why I’m skeptical that the final week of the campaign will change the likely outcome.

Democrats have successfully broadened the playing field, adding voters and competitive states that could potentially turn a narrow presidential victory into a more resounding one. After all, few of us thought that we’d be watching Iowa and Georgia this late in the cycle.

But as I outlined a little more than four years ago in my postelection Washington Post column: I was wrong in 2016, and there is always a chance I could be wrong again. So I am going to wait for the votes to be counted before declaring a winner.

The future of the GOP

We don’t yet know the magnitude of Trump’s likely defeat or whether Republicans will suffer the kind of down-ballot thrashing that would force the party to reexamine itself and its future.

A narrow presidential loss combined with the party keeping control of the Senate might not lead Republicans to look at themselves in the mirror. But even a dramatic defeat wouldn’t mean the end of this GOP.

Four years after Republican Barry Goldwater was annihilated at the polls in 1964, his party came back to win the White House. And four years after Democrat George McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon, the country elected Democrat Jimmy Carter as president. So even dramatic electoral defeats don’t always mean that the losing party is relegated to minority status for an extended period.

A Biden electoral victory on Nov. 3 will be the easy part. Governing with a complicated coalition that includes former Republicans, progressives and pragmatists will be a much more difficult challenge. Enlarge the Supreme Court? Eliminate the filibuster?

Republicans will look for — and find — wedge issues to divide the Democrats, as the partisan war we have been experiencing pauses for only a fleeting moment. Do you really think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is going to roll over and play dead? Moreover, Trump is unlikely to simply slink into the shadows, licking his wounds and embracing the role of doting grandfather. Narcissists like Trump need attention, and he is likely to be outspoken about the next administration. Unfortunately, the national media will give him a platform from which to second-guess Biden and galvanize supporters.

For the next week, though, don’t let your passion drive you crazy. Don’t overreact to every incident or accusation, real or manufactured. There are still races to watch, polls to digest (and, in some cases, ignore) and votes to be counted. And remember, there is still time for an invasion from Mars.