So Republican candidates are facing an impossible strategic choice, one that is to some degree independent of the president’s approval rating or any economic factor: tack toward Trump, and potentially lose the center, or forgo Trumpian red meat and watch the base stay home. “What you do when you appeal to that 33 percent is you peel off another 50 percent of the voters who will go, ‘Fuck you, I will crawl over broken glass to vote against you because you are a goddamn Donald Trumper,’” Rick Wilson, a G.O.P. strategist and vocal Never Trumper, told me, adding that without Clinton, Trump “has to stand on his own two feet.” And although Trump won’t be on the ballot in 2018, every Republican candidate this fall will be viewed as a Trump proxy. Meanwhile, Democrats will have the luxury of focusing their energy elsewhere. “They get to do that because they’re out of power. That’s a big advantage to them,” the Republican strategist told me. “They let the national environment take care of it and they run on issues that are local and important.”
The G.O.P. challenge is not unlike what Democrats grappled with during the Barack Obama era. “You can approach it by hugging the incumbent president, or you can try to run away from them,” a Florida-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who directed Obama’s 2008 campaign in the Sunshine state, told me. “In reality, I am not sure it makes a huge amount of difference—and certainly in 2010 it didn’t.” Of course, the Democratic Party’s electoral success during Obama’s eight years in office certainly doesn’t instill much confidence. The former Illinois senator may have won the White House twice, but Democrats lost more than 1,000 electoral seats under his leadership.