- - Sunday, August 21, 2016

It’s only August, but if there’s a conclusion that can be drawn already about the November elections it’s that the voters seem in no mood to grant either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton a landslide. The partisans are too evenly matched, and nobody’s in love with either Democrat or Republican.

This has enormous implications for the congressional races — determining whether the Democrats retain the U.S. Senate or the Republicans hold the Senate and strengthen their control of the House of Representatives.

“Given the questions about [Mrs.] Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness,” observes Charlie Cook of the reliable, and reliably non-partisan, Cook Report, “voters might consider a hedge against giving her a ‘blank check.’ It’s not hard to see how that might benefit some Republicans in competitive races, with voters reluctantly pulling the lever for [Mrs.] Clinton but voting for a Republican for the Senate or the House as a check on her presidency. While [her] negatives have declined a bit, they are still high enough to be fatal to just about any general-election opponent other than Donald Trump.”

Conversely, if Mr. Trump wins it’s likely that voters wouldn’t be comfortable giving him a blank check, either. If there was ever a race between two unpopular and mistrusted candidates, it’s this one. Nobody’s throwing his or her hat in the air for either candidate, and not just because men and women don’t wear hats so much anymore (more’s the pity).

It’s an old theory that voters vote “against” with more enthusiasm than they vote “for,” and if that’s true, or even close to the truth, this is the year that the impulse to vote “against” is strongest. Rarely has so much hate and vitriol been aimed at candidates. Trolls have kept the internet aflame with diatribes, most of them consisting of harsh and personal invective. This bodes ill for both candidates.

To read and listen to most of the commentary in newspapers, on the air and on Web sites, you might think the race is over, that the Clinton magic will prevail and the Donald will soon be on the scout for a permanent television gig. But the RealClearPolitics closely-watched averages show Hillary leading by a fraction less than 6 points, which is slipping close to the margin of error. A Los Angeles Times poll at the weekend put the Clinton lead at less than a full point, meaning the race is effectively tied.

The unusual character of the race suggests there are no coattails for congressional candidates to hang onto this year. In fact, coattails have always been a bit overrated, and now more than ever. Divided government — with one party holding the White House and the other the Congress — has almost become the norm over the past decades. Voters obviously regard this as their only available insurance against runaway partisanship.

In the four landslides over the past half-century, with the winners scoring margins of 10 points or more — Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972, and Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 — only one was accompanied by dramatically large gains in Congress. The Republicans won 12 Senate and 34 House seats in 1980.

The odds against that happening this year are large. The polls show the electorate remarkably unsettled, and in such turmoil voters are likely to “stay the curse” as best they can.

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