Amy Walter: The Current State of the Campaign

Amy Walter at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, discussed possible outcomes of the 2016 presidential and down-ballot races, and what may lie ahead after Election Day.

Walter, who appears on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “PBS NewsHour,”also discussed the role of voter turnout, Senate races in Missouri and North Carolina, her approach to political analysis, and what to expect during the lame-duck session of Congress, among many other topics. Below are some highlights from the conversation.

Listen to the full audio recording below or on iTunes.

The presidential race and its potential effect on down-ballot races

“The question right now is no longer who’s going to win but what the margins are going to be and what it means further down the ticket, and what it means when we think about Hillary Clinton going forward with a so-called mandate…What’s interesting is that even as we’re seeing Hillary Clinton’s margins improve in all of the national polling, two things haven’t changed. One, people still don’t like her any more than that they did a month or two months ago, so perceptions of her haven’t really changed…and when asked the question about do you want to see a Republican or a Democrat in office at the congressional level, that number has improved for Democrats but not dramatically.”

Yet, said Walter, “people don’t split their tickets…This would be a very unique circumstance if indeed Hillary Clinton can win by a big margin and Republicans can still hold on to the Senate. And finally, the other difference is that she will come in with a disapproval rating higher than any other candidate that we’ve had in the last 20 years.”

Possible outcomes for the House and Senate

“On paper, Democrats have a great chance to take over the Senate,” said Walter. “Republicans are defending seven Senate seats in states that Obama had carried in the last election, and now you put on top of it a growing lead for Hillary Clinton. This should all lead to success down ballot…They need four seats to take control of the Senate.”

Regarding the House, “the way that districts are drawn and the kinds of seats that are competitive really limits the ability for Democrats to expand the playing field all that much,” said Walter. “The kinds of districts that Democrats normally had done well in, in older days — white, blue-collar districts, now are going to most likely go to Republican or stay in Republican hands. Suburban, wealthy, educated districts that for so long had been Republican-leaning now could go D. So the splits that we’re seeing at the presidential level…will play a role in the kinds of districts that flip between Democrat and Republican.”

Likely voter turnout

“I’ve heard every theory for why it’s going to be higher or lower. Why it will be lower: The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll looks at voter enthusiasm in the race…and we’re at the lowest we’ve been going back a few cycles…we have two people that very few people like and it’s been an ugly, awful, soul-crushing election, of course it’s going to be lower turnout. On the other hand, this is an election that everybody is paying attention to…2012, 2004, those were not elections that were saturated into our daily discourse in the way this election is. And you had good turnout. So to think that you could have turnout lower than that when we’ve had nothing but discussion about this election…it seems to me that is encouraging more turnout rather than less.”

Why Trump’s nomination came as a surprise

“I was definitely one of those people early on…that was like, ‘this is a joke’…I looked at the data. I’m going to go to the polling. Of Republican primary voters — Donald Trump — name identification: 100 percent. Favorable rating among Republicans: 40 percent. Unfavorable rating: 60 percent…you don’t have to be a genius or a political scientist to know that if 100 percent of people know you and only 40 percent of them like you, you’re not going to win…so the most surprising thing — and I’ve never seen anything like this in politics — over the course of the summer, he flipped that 40/60 to 60/40.”

“He didn’t have to dominate in the way that people thought he did among Evangelicals and among the Tea Party. He did well enough, and then he dominated among white voters without a college degree in a way that nobody else could compete with.”

Why polarization may increase after the election

“The polarization that is going to come from this campaign is going to be deeper and wider than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. We right now have, at least in the polling, the largest gender gap we’ve seen in 40 or 50 years, we are going to have another huge divide between white and non-white voters, and this big gap between those who have a college education and those who don’t…that does not bode well for ‘let’s bring America together’…the challenge for Hillary Clinton I think both in the debate tomorrow night and going forward in this campaign is to show a vision of how she’s going to do this…she has a lot of policies but there’s not really a vision.”

“At the end of the day I think that if this does end up Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer — these are three people who like to cut deals. These are three pragmatists….I think that they are people who want to get stuff done and want to make sure that they keep government working.”

On the other hand, Walter acknowledged that 2018 will be a competitive year, so Republicans could “make things as miserable for Hillary Clinton as possible so that they get control of the Senate back, expand the House, and then make sure she has two super-unproductive terrible years so that 2020 is the year of Republicans.”

On declining trust in institutions, including the media

“We seem to forget sometimes that journalists, just like politicians, are actual human beings who are trying to figure stuff out that is confounding to them, and this election has been confounding…when the first reports of Donald Trump’s, what we thought were missteps, came out in the press — and they were his own words…he proudly said that John McCain wasn’t a war hero…we thought, ‘well surely he can’t win a Republican primary’…What does that say about the media? They just took him and put him on television and it didn’t sway voters. It says as much about what voters wanted to believe — they just chose not to make that an important part of their decision-making process. ‘Yeah, that’s what he said. Don’t care. He’s going to shake things up.’”

Walter also addressed the “steep decline” in public trust of the media and other institutions. “We didn’t end up in this election by accident…this is not a weird, one-off anomaly that happened because we have a pop culture society that’s in love with celebrities and so he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We’ve been building toward this election for a long time and it’s not going to go away in 2018…if you have every major institution at its lowest trust level, and you put on top of that major life-altering changes in every aspect of our lives, whether it’s economic with globalization and the death of manufacturing…how technology has upended all of our lives…the cultural and demographic changes in this country…our institutions are both not trusted to handle it, and have proven that they can’t really help us navigate this change.”

“Just reading the op-eds from the newspapers, it feels completely detached from the reality that people are feeling,” continued Walter. “How do you represent the distrust and the disgust that folks have with an institution that is supposed to be a beacon of truth, while also holding true to this idea that we’re there to make you, the voter, smarter and better informed? If they don’t trust that you’re there to do that, then we seem to be in a circular argument.”

This post originally appeared on the Shorenstein Center website. View more articles and audio from our event series.