Labor Day weekend is just a memory now. Summer is over, and this year that means the presidential race gets dead serious. It’s time to pay attention to this, because the polls are tightening. Some polls show Trump is ahead. Perhaps the Clinton folks should panic – she could lose this thing. Or perhaps the Trump folks should panic – the underlying math for him is dismal. He may have hit his ceiling, which isn’t quite enough to win. Or perhaps everyone should wait for the next batch of polls, because these may be useless.
Assume they’re not. At Politico, Steven Shepard suggests that Clinton is the one in trouble:
The nine-week, post-Labor Day sprint to Election Day began Tuesday with a muddle of new poll results that confirm only one thing: Hillary Clinton no longer owns the commanding lead she held a month ago.
A CNN/ORC International poll generated the most headlines Tuesday. The survey found Donald Trump ahead by 2 points nationally among likely voters – the first live-interview poll in six weeks to show Trump in the lead.
On the other hand, there’s this:
Clinton fared better in other new polls. A Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll, conducted over virtually the same time period, showed Clinton leading by 3 points. The most recent weekly wave of the NBC News/SurveyMonkey tracking poll, conducted over the internet, showed Clinton’s lead over Trump holding steady at 6 points. And state-level SurveyMonkey data compiled for The Washington Post gives Clinton the edge in the Electoral College.
Okay, make no assumptions:
While volatility at this stage of the campaign isn’t unexpected, the latest polling data point to a stunningly unstable election environment, unlike any in recent decades.
Fine, but instability favors Trump. Instability is his middle name, but the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argues that Clinton panic makes no sense:
Stick to the polling averages. Surprising poll results can either be outliers, or can reflect statistical noise or short term fluctuations. Fortunately, we have a remedy for this: The polling averages, which have massive samples that cover longer periods of time and help screen out the noise. Depending on who is doing the averaging, Clinton is up by three (The Upshot), four (Real Clear Politics), or five (Huffpollster). As the Huffpollster team puts it: “Not a single poll included in HuffPost’s average has had Trump ahead since late July. Historical precedent suggests that bodes well for her.”
That means she is still favored. This doesn’t mean Trump can’t catch up or that the race isn’t tightening – or that he can’t win. He can win. The race is tightening. But he hasn’t caught up yet.
And then there are the state polls:
Over the weekend, CBS/YouGov polls found Clinton leading by eight points in Pennsylvania and four points in North Carolina. The Real Clear Politics and Huffpollster averages show Clinton with small-to-medium and persistent leads in all the swing states.
As Nate Silver has noted, the state polls have shown Clinton a bit stronger than the national ones have. We don’t really know for sure why that is or which are closer to right, the state polls or the national polls. But you should take both into account, just like the major models do – and they all show Clinton with better odds.
And note that the Democrats are taking nothing for granted:
No matter how many times you hear otherwise, Democrats who are actually running this year’s presidential campaign and the outside pro-Clinton efforts have long prepared for a close finish. As Clinton chief strategist Joel Benenson recently put it: “The collection of battleground states – where the election is won or lost – are usually close, usually in single digits. They are battleground states for a reason.”
There are a lot of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in these states. They are very likely to remain very close down to the very end.
And remember that Trump, perhaps by design or perhaps because of his odd self-confidence, has no ground game:
Most of the reporting out there indicates that Trump and Republicans are lagging well behind in the creation of contemporary state-of-the-art get-out-the-vote operations. Political pros and political scientists alike think this could cost Trump one to three points. That could matter in very close states.
And then there are those college-educated white voters:
Some of the new polling out today shows that Trump continues to dramatically under-perform previous Republican candidates among this key demographic, which will put even more pressure on him to run up improbably huge margins and turnout among blue collar whites.
So, if you’re on the Clinton side of things, don’t panic, unless you consider this about those college-educated white voters:
One big unknown is whether the support these voters are showing for Clinton – she is on track to become the first Democrat to win among them in over half a century – is soft, and is more rooted in opposition to Trump than in any affirmative sense of why they should want a Clinton presidency. If that is so, Trump might be able to win more back if he can manage to be a little less insane and depraved. Keep an eye on whether those voters continue to say that Trump lacks the right temperament for the job and that he’s running a campaign that plays on bigotry.
Trump could, after all, begin to behave himself. No one believes he can, and he has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to behave himself – he hates political correctness and believes everyone else does too, and sneers and personal insults have served him well so far – but stranger things have happened.
Okay, that’s unlikely – Clinton will be fine – but Sargent says we should all get ready for news organizations to grade Trump’s debate performances on a massive curve, citing this from CNN:
In front of a vast television audience, the GOP nominee could reshape perceptions of his character and readiness – if he can avoid being drawn into gaffes and personality clashes by Clinton. He will benefit from rock-bottom expectations, given controversies whipped up by his tempestuous personality and the vast gulf in experience between Trump and Clinton.
In other words, if Trump doesn’t try to urinate in Clinton’s direction or manages not to vomit all over his podium, he will have “defied expectations.” So presidential! In saying these types of things, news orgs and commentators never allow that they are the ones who decide whether the supposed defiance of expectations in question actually should lead us to lower the bar for a candidate or otherwise factor in to how we judge his or her performance. It shouldn’t.
There will be a lot of pressure on the news orgs not to play this game, but it’s reasonably possible that we’ll see a lot of it, anyway. This is going to be infuriating, so prepare your medicine of choice right now.
Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog says it’s worse than that:
What Sargent doesn’t mention is that Hillary Clinton is going to be bumped down one or several grades precisely because she’ll know what he’s talking about. Journalists and pundits will use this against her two ways: (1) They’ll dismiss her command of the subject because, well, of course she should know her stuff after all these years, and (2) they’ll act as if she’s showing off by displaying a command of the facts.
That will be deadly:
I don’t know how Hillary Clinton will overcome this hurdle. She’ll have to look as if she’s not trying to embarrass Trump whereas Trump will get higher grades the more he insults Clinton. And, of course, Clinton can’t forgo gravitas to give Trump a taste of his own medicine… Trump will have to “avoid being drawn into gaffes and personality clashes by Clinton.” Really, she can’t win.
And she will have to deal with things like this:
Hillary Clinton just doesn’t have the “look” necessary to be president, Donald Trump said in an interview on Tuesday.
ABC News’ David Muir asked Trump what he meant by questioning the first female major party nominee’s “stamina” and saying she doesn’t look presidential.
“I just don’t think she has a presidential look, and you need a presidential look,” Trump replied. “You have to get the job done. I think if she went to Mexico she would have had a total failure. We had a big success.”
Muir pressed Trump on whether he was “talking about aesthetics.”
“I’m talking about in general,” Trump said, before remarking that Clinton has said “horrible” things about him during the campaign.
Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer defended Trump in an interview on CNN, saying he agrees that Clinton “doesn’t look and appear as someone who’s going to be president.”
Asked by host Kate Bolduan whether Trump commented on Clinton’s “look” because she’s a woman, Spicer fired back, “Oh my god, give me a break.”
Trump never said no one can imagine a woman as president, but if people take it that way (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) there’s not much Trump can do.
This is going to be nasty, but still, the math is all wrong for Trump, and Politico offers an analysis of how he has hit his ceiling:
Donald Trump has run head-first into an electoral wall.
In poll after poll, Trump isn’t even close to winning a majority of the vote. While he’s narrowed the gap between his campaign and Hillary Clinton in recent weeks, in the past 21 national polls conducted using conventional phone or internet methodologies over the last five weeks, Trump’s high-water mark in a head-to-head matchup with Clinton is 44 percent.
And when third-party candidates – Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein – are included, Trump’s highest poll score is only 40 percent, well below Clinton’s high of 50 percent.
The GOP presidential nominee’s limited support isn’t necessarily prohibitive for his chances – especially if Johnson and Stein continue to draw, combined, more than 10 percent of the vote. He only trails Clinton by 4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average and by 5 points in the HuffPost Pollster model. But if support for the third-party candidates dwindles closer to Election Day, Trump’s inability to expand his base could tilt the race further toward Clinton or require him to find a way to win with only a plurality of the vote, rather than a majority.
That’s unlikely, and topping out at forty-four percent ends it all:
He needs to convince more voters who don’t like him to vote for him. According to HuffPost Pollster, Trump’s average unfavorable rating is 58 percent – a number that closely resembles the percentage of voters who don’t choose him in general-election matchups. (Trump’s average score in two-way polls with Clinton is 42.1 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.)
Then there is this:
In matchups with Clinton – even without the third-party candidates – he is winning fewer Republicans than she is winning Democrats.
Trump is winning under 82 percent of Republicans in an average of the seven most-recent head-to-head polls that provided results by political party. Clinton, meanwhile, is winning nearly 85 percent of self-identified Democrats.
He needs to fight that math and he will lose that fight:
With nine weeks until Election Day, Trump will have opportunities to reset voters’ perceptions of him – especially with three nationally televised debates on the calendar. But with a ceiling currently between 40 and 44 percent, he’s at a distinct disadvantage against Clinton. And in order to claim a majority of the vote on Election Day, polls indicate he will have to win over voters who right now say they have decided they can’t ever vote for him.
How does he do that? There’s not enough time left to do that, even if it were possible, and by being occasional presidential – measured and oddly polite – he’s confusing those who love him for his wild rudeness.
In a long review of Trump’s summer, Matt Taibbi hones in on that confusion:
This is the Trump they fell in love with. It’s the same über-confident, self-congratulating gasbag who bulldozed to the Republican nomination on the strength of long, unscripted rants that were glorious tributes to every teenager everywhere who has ever taken a test without studying. Now the scriptless wonder is back. Or is he?
Every time Trump gets all measured and polite, they miss the old guy:
The man who once famously pronounced “I know words, I have the best words” scorched through the primaries using the vocabulary of a signing gorilla (“China – money – bad!”).
Last October, when Trump was an ascendant circus act whose every move mesmerized the global media, the Boston Globe did a linguistic analysis of the GOP field. The paper discovered that loserific hopefuls like Jim Gilmore and Mike Huckabee were speaking above the 10th-grade level. But Trump was crushing the competition using the language of a fourth-grader, below all of his competitors, including Ben Carson (sixth grade) and Ted Cruz (ninth grade).
It was a key to his success. In an era when the public above all hates professional politicians, Trump came off as unrehearsed and genuine. He was a lout and a monster, but at least he was ad-libbed.
But now he’s doing less of that, and paying the price for being inauthentic:
Now he’s trying to win, and he’s in free-fall. Polls show he will lose to one of the most unpopular Democratic nominees ever. And Trump, whose very name is supposed to be synonymous with hedonism and hoggish excess, looks in person like a picture of misery.
It’s obvious that reading someone else’s words depresses Trump to no end, which is why he’s never really done it. His father’s eulogy in 1999 is reportedly the one exception. “Those are the only prepared remarks he’s ever delivered before now, to my knowledge,” says his biographer Wayne Barrett. “He talks all the time about how he doesn’t want to bore his audience. He’s more worried about boring himself.”
But he’s boring himself a lot now, and it’s hard not to wonder why. The man whose primary season slogan might as well have been “Trump ’16: I Don’t Give a Fuck” is not only carefully choosing his words now but appears panicked and indecisive, overwhelmed by his seemingly inevitable defeat.
Worse, he’s sunk to the level of “strategy” to try to revive his flagging campaign, probably on the advice of some genius in the new rogues’ gallery of crackpots and “alt-right” psychopaths (led by bullfroggish Breitbart chief Steve Bannon) he calls his inner circle.
And then there’s his improvisational campaign:
For most of the past year, it’s been difficult to get a read on what “the Trump campaign” was thinking at any given moment, because “the Trump campaign” per se didn’t exist. The campaign was basically a few overheated ganglia somewhere behind Trump’s eyes.
His process was random enough that he himself often seemed surprised by the amazing things that came out of his mouth, sort of the way Eddie Van Halen used to raise an eyebrow when he thought he hit a particularly awesome note in a solo. Trump’s head tilted one way, and a tirade against Macy’s credit cards came out. It tilted the other way, and Trump compared El Chapo to a vacuum cleaner.
Nobody had “access” to the inner workings of that, not reporters, not his staff, and probably not even Trump himself. And yet his poll numbers kept soaring. It was the cheapest, most lightweight campaign organization ever. That he ended up securing the Republican nomination in this manner is an unsurpassable accomplishment in the history of winging it.
Then he hit a wall:
Eventually he reached a stage of the race where the whole enterprise simply got too big to manage entirely by whim, and that’s when he got into trouble. Seat-of-pants Trump was an elusive, high-energy monstrosity, but doing-his-homework Trump was a disaster, to use one of his favorite words.
He made terrible decision after terrible decision. After spending all primary season savaging the Republican establishment, he spent the months after he sewed up the nomination alternately courting and denouncing the likes of Paul Ryan, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte.
Then, after bragging all year that he didn’t need anyone’s money, he suddenly started sucking up to party bigwigs and reportedly even fired his thuggish campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, at the behest of donors as well as his own children.
He replaced Lewandowski with the similarly goonish political lifer Paul Manafort – Lewandowski and Manafort both look like the kind of people you’d find smoking Pall Malls in the trailer office of a repossessed-car lot. But Trump immediately began straining against Manafort’s efforts to get him to stick to scripted speeches and stop bashing other Republicans, the parents of war dead, Mexican judges and other such unsuitable targets for general-election-season abuse.
Before long, the internal tensions leaked to The New York Times, which in an August 13th article detailed Manafort’s fruitless efforts to get Trump to focus and stop shooting himself in the face. The article naturally infuriated the candidate, who then essentially ousted Manafort and replaced him with Bannon, chief of the far-right Breitbart media empire and perhaps the only person in America with a worse reputation than Trump for hotheadedness and choleric racism.
These were unforced errors:
Trump would have been better off just conceding the loss from the outset and spending the general-election season going up in flames, showing up at debates guzzling martinis and wearing a lampshade on his head, directing daily tirades at cancer kids and nuns, playing the election like an Andy Kaufman prank.
Instead, he vacillated wildly, trying in one moment to look “presidential” before reversing course seconds later to purge his staff and go on politically destructive rampages.
These manic-depressive episodes caused him to plummet in the polls and ultimately left him on the maximally absurd strategic track: trying to right the ship and win back the political middle under the direction of Bannon, an infamous idiot, extremist and Internet conspiracy theorist whose ex-wife claimed in court filings that he “didn’t want [his kids] to go to school with Jews.” Trump as Eliza Doolittle and Bannon as Professor Higgins is surely the dumbest casting of Pygmalion ever tried.
Then it got worse:
Trump surprised everyone by telling his buddy Sean Hannity in a Fox-televised town hall that he was open to a “softening” on the immigration issue. “Everybody agrees we get the bad ones out,” Trump said. But when I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject … they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump.'”
TV audiences and journalists alike reacted in shock. Was this the same guy who plugged a return to Eisenhower’s lurid “Operation Wetback” mass-deportation program last year?”
And his arguments meant to win the black vote were just as odd:
Argument one: If your life sucks already, and as a white billionaire I can only assume it does, why not try something new? “To those suffering, I say, vote for Donald Trump and I will fix it,” he says. “What do you have to lose?”
Argument two is the stunner, a breathtaking attempt to pull all the irreconcilable rhetorical threads of his campaign together. “There is another civil-rights issue we need to talk about, and that’s the issue of immigration enforcement,” he says. “Every time an African-American citizen … loses their job to an illegal immigrant, the rights of that American citizen have been violated.”
Yes, let’s build a wall, but let’s do it to help African-Americans!
What? He seemed to be making this up as he went along:
If Trump was going to think strategically, the time to do it was from the very beginning, before he insulted menstruating women, the pope, Muslims, Mexicans, Whoopi Goldberg, Ronda Rousey, Carly Fiorina’s face, Germany, and hundreds of other groups and individuals.
You do it before you do schlock impersonations of Chinese businesspeople (“We want deal!”), before you retweet a bogus meme claiming 81 percent of white homicide victims were killed by blacks (the real number is 15 percent), before you mimic people with neurological disorders, and before you suggest that gun enthusiasts might take a shot at your opponent.
And you definitely do it before you destroy the modern Republican Party by birthing into the mainstream an aggressive white-nationalist movement, whose entire identity is centered around walling itself off from America’s future multicultural majority. In other words, you do it before you tear down a 162-year-old political organization to replace it with a smaller more radicalized, more automatically-losing coalition – not after.
That’s why Trump has hit his ceiling:
The presidential campaign is the ultimate exploration of self. If you make it as far as the general election, you become one of the most analyzed personalities on Earth. Merciless reporters track down every relative, business partner, love interest and enemy you ever had, and pundits and armchair psychiatrists alike scrutinize every sentence you utter.
Making it to victory requires an unshakeable inner confidence beyond the capacity of most people. Most politicians get around this by being walking sales pitches instead of people, appearing as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts representing slates of party positions, their personalities merely serving as idiosyncratic background to the corporate presentation. In times of crisis, they can cling to the party line.
Trump is different. He ran as a party-smasher, a man among elitist mice, a traitor to the establishment who came down from corrupt Olympus to save the common people. “I know the game better than anyone,” he told crowds. “I’ve been on the other side.”
As a salacious high-velocity burn on a corrupted campaign process, he was initially a brilliant, if repulsive, success. He charged through the primary season like a pig on strychnine and won the nomination not because of who he was, but what he wasn’t: a politician.
And now he cannot really change that:
The promise of his campaign was Trump the man, all day, every day. If his voters wanted a politician, or even a non-politician who thought before he spoke, they’d have chosen one. Who could have foreseen we’d end up with the one thing more ridiculous than Donald Trump running for president: Donald Trump running for president and trying to be smart about it.
That’s just a taste of Taibbi by the way – the whole item is just as colorful, and oddly accurate. Given the polls, Tuesday was a day of panic for the Democrats. That’s fine. A bit of panic, mastered, can provide focus and discipline. But they’re not the ones who should be panicked.