James Carville Trump's 2020 polls helping Powell, Murkowski grow spines. Will other Republicans follow?

If morality alone won't push Republicans to do the right thing, polling should. This isn't 2016.
Image: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, during a hearing on Capitol Hill
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, June 4, 2020.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images
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By James Carville

In mid-April, I took to these pages to make it clear what nearly all Washington insiders have privately concluded: In a fair election, there is no chance for President Donald Trump to survive the electoral reckoning that looms. And now it seems that after Trump's mishandling of the protests after the death of George Floyd, on top of his mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, some of these insiders from even within the president's own party have put their fingers to the wind.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's comments last week are a case in point. On Thursday, Murkowski, a moderate from Alaska, said she is considering not backing Trump's re-election. Murkowski, who voted to acquit Trump in his impeachment trials, said she was "struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time." Despite leaving some room for interpretation, such public reluctance is still a watershed moment in American politics, for multiple reasons.

Aside from former GOP (now Libertarian) Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan or Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Murkowski is the first sitting Republican lawmaker to push back so strongly against Trump's second term — especially with a re-election campaign looming in the near future. But the political onion doesn't stop its peel there. In publicly turning from Trump, Murkowski also tied a political anvil to the ankle of her colleague Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican who is seeking re-election in Alaska on the same 2020 ballot as the president. I think Sullivan's re-election chances are overstated by pundits and politicos. In 2014, Sullivan won by just a hair more than 2 percentage points (not to mention his challenger, Dr. Al Gross, has one of the best political bios in history.)

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Murkowski seems to think the political cost of sticking with Trump is indeed dire — why else would she potentially put her own home-state Senate colleague at risk? Republican senators across the electoral map are increasingly facing a fork in the road: Do they want to try to win despite their support for Trump or despite their opposition to him? On Saturday, The New York Times reported that a host of prominent Republicans — including Romney, former President George W. Bush and even Cindy McCain — are refusing to back the president's campaign and are considering endorsing Democrat Joe Biden. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said explicitly that he will be voting for Biden in November.

So here's my message to possibly vulnerable and supposedly pragmatic GOP senators like Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, who are still taking in campaign cash from the president: Vague waffling and obfuscation aren't going to cut it this time. We've seen you voice your "concerns" in the past, only to return to the president's flank. And we're not falling for it again.

For the past four years, Republicans have lived in a catatonic state of cowardice as Trump hijacked their party and steered the country toward the edge of disaster. America sees this clearly now, and it is revolting against what Trump has made us become. Even so, if morality alone won't push Republicans to do the right thing, polling should. This isn't 2016 — just look at the statistical evidence.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote, nabbing just 46.1 percent, and won the Electoral College by a razor-thin margin of about 80,000 votes spread across three states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Since 2016, Trump has made zero effort to expand his appeal, and he has consistently hovered around the low 40s — which is not a good approval rating. Then came the 2018 midterms. In 2018, Republican turnout was actually higher than in other historic midterms after a president of the winning party assumed office. Still, Democrats won the House by the largest margin in the history of the United States. And the significance of Democratic gubernatorial victories in Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018, as well as in Kentucky and Louisiana last November, shouldn't be understated.

But enough with history. Let's look at the polling. An old trick in this business is that if you look long and hard enough you can find some poll somewhere that will yield the result you desire. So as opposed to cherry-picking one good poll for Biden or Democrats in general, I implore you to take current polling as a sum of its parts. In the current RealClearPolitics polling averages, Biden is up by close to 9 points nationally; he is up in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina. That's pretty much every major swing state.

Despite what Trump may be tweeting, his advisers have noticed something's up. His campaign's initial foray into advertising is obviously targeted at states it has to win and needs to catch up ground in to produce a victory. Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump's campaign is beginning to spend dollars in Ohio, Georgia and Iowa — states that Trump won handily by nearly double-digit margins in 2016. As an incumbent, if you're using your early money to plug holes in states that should be in your corner from the jump, you're in trouble.

Throwing empirical evidence aside, the single most peculiar aspect of this entire story is the fact that Trump came into office aided by outside interference from the Russians, James Comey and a stupid email story blown out of proportion by the media, and he still won only by a distributional fluke of less than 100,000 votes in three states. There is no Trump magic. These facts are evident to Republican senators, House members, governors, lobbyists, donors, political consultants and hangers-on. As we get closer to Election Day, expect more Republicans to unlatch from the president in an attempt to try and claw their way out the nightmare they aided Trump in perpetuating upon this country for far too long.

And to my fellow Democrats: It is our responsibility to keep up the pressure on Republicans who are wavering in their support of Trump. It should have never taken this long for Republicans to distance themselves — and those who don't see the light don't deserve to hold office.

There is a righteous fury in America right now building up against this president and the immense damage he has done to our country. Former esteemed members of the military are sounding the sirens, black voters and other voters of color are engaged and mad as hell, and suburban women have flipped by double-digit margins against this president. The cry of a majoritarian dominance has begun. As John Maynard Keynes once said, "When facts change, I change my mind." I reserve the right to, but my suspicion is the facts are only going to get worse for Trump and the Republicans who stick by his side.

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