To the issues shaping the 2016 presidential election in the United States – a list that, along with the economy and national security, includes a wall on the Mexican border, the banning of Muslims immigrants from the United States, the content of speeches made to a Wall Street bank, the sexual comportment of a former president and the weight of a beauty queen – we now add lewd repartee, the groping of women and bragging about sexual conquests.
This week's revelations involving Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump add yet another unprecedented element to the American contest and prompt yet another conjuring of the political calculus. With the Trump campaign reeling, Republican leaders considering their options, and vulgar anatomical terms entering the political lexicon, the American race now is in upheaval – and the tumult comes at a critical moment, on the eve of the second presidential debate with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sensational new elements in a political campaign in a nation of an estimated 325 million people always have complex ramifications, and indeed this episode has an unusual number of moving parts. Here are some of the principal voting groups that may be affected.
Republican party leaders
Nearly all the important GOP figures reacted with revulsion and anger Friday to these new revelations, many of them seeking to create further distance between the party's controversial nominee and themselves, some out of horror, some out of self-interest, some out of concern for the Republicans seeking, or trying to retain, governorships and seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. This latter group is especially worth watching.
A handful of party leaders called for Mr. Trump to step down, an eventuality that has no precedent and for which the party is largely unprepared, legally, politically and temperamentally. But this new episode serves to underline the tensions between elected Republicans and their nominee, who in his primary and caucus battle left many victims in his wake, many of them still bloodied and wounded even though they reluctantly have stood behind Mr. Trump, almost all of them with palpable unease.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin made it clear Mr. Trump was not welcome in his district today, and a photo opportunity the party dearly wanted – of its intellectual avatar standing by its nominee – will not occur. Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, Mr. Trump's vice-presidential running mate, will replace the Manhattan businessman on the stage and his presence not only will not have the same effect, it will also prompt inevitable embarrassing reflections on the man who is absent.
The Republican establishment
This group is separate from the party leaders above, as it includes many former office holders, one-time presidential nominees and prominent unelected officials. The GOP establishment, rooted in the urban Northeast and the farm Midwest, has served as Mr. Trump's foil for more than a year, as he has pilloried them, ridiculed them and treated them with contempt. He showed special enmity for former presidents George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) and George W. Bush (2001-2009) as well as for two one-time GOP presidential nominees, Senator John McCain of Arizona (2008) and former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (2012). The elder Mr. Bush is to vote for Ms. Clinton and Mr. Romney has indicated he cannot vote for either candidate.
Mr. Trump cannot expect any support from members of this group, which only 18 months ago were considered the most loyal of the loyal, stalwart defenders of the party in even the stormiest seasons. But none of them expected a Category 5-force storm remotely resembling Hurricane Donald. There will be a we-told-you-so sense among these figures, and shrewd observers of the American political scene will be watching for indications of the strength of their statements in coming days.
The reaction of female voters of all political strains ranged from distaste to nausea, a factor likely to widen the huge gender gap in the 2016 campaign. The damage for Mr. Trump very likely will go far beyond his likely loss of Independent and uncommitted women and very well may include women who, until now, were his supporters. Political analysts have long identified female voters as a critical, perhaps even the decisive, factor in this election, and the lewd remarks and crude impulses that Mr. Trump displayed can only alienate them more.
Many members of the Christian Right had reluctantly embraced Mr. Trump's campaign, viewing him as less odious than Ms. Clinton, but this alliance has always been a fragile one and this is the Trump voting group most likely to question, and perhaps, abandon, its alliance. Religious conservatives were wary of Mr. Trump's record (three marriages) and reputation (affirmed by these new revelations) but found him a more congenial harbour than Ms. Clinton. Today, that harbour is full of wreckage and its safety is in jeopardy.
Many of these voters were attracted to Mr. Trump for his views on immigration and his dedication to creating new jobs in unemployment-heavy sections of the United States, especially in the Rust Belt. Some of them had drifted toward the Republicans in the Ronald Reagan years but Mr. Trump's entreaties drew them deeper into the GOP embrace. These revelations will leave them unsettled, but it is not clear whether they will shatter the bonds between them and Mr. Trump. An unknown but potentially potent factor for this group, largely male: the reactions of their wives and daughters to the Trump remarks.
This group stuck with Mr. Trump after he questioned the heroism of Mr. McCain, who was in solitary confinement in a Hanoi prison after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam war; after he ridiculed the disabilities of a reporter; after he recanted his views that President Barack Obama was not a native-born American; after he attacked a Miss Universe for her weight gain; and after many other remarks and actions that drove many Republicans from his candidacy even as they strengthened his bonds with these loyalists, who admired him for his outspokenness. A few may peel away, but this group will almost certainly dismiss this episode as "Donald being Donald" and take comfort from his remarks, made in his apology Friday night, that the campaign has made him a different, and better, man.
No prediction about this campaign has been redeemed, no insight affirmed. This episode has yet to run its course, and the only certainties are these two: More surprises are in store. And Sunday's debate will be unforgettable.