The Ambiguous versus the Unlikable

America needed to be confused again. Just when Donald Trump was pulling even with Hillary Clinton in all the polls, because he was staying on-message for a change – or for the first time since he announced his candidacy more than a year ago – he suddenly went back to his old ways:

Donald Trump refused to say whether he believes President Obama was born in the United States in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday.

But in a statement hours later from the GOP nominee’s spokesman, the campaign claimed Trump does indeed believe the president was born in Hawaii.

What? Which is it? That was hard to say:

When asked point-blank by The Post’s Robert Costa during an interview in Ohio, Trump again dodged the question of whether he accepts that the president is indeed a natural-born US citizen.

“I’ll answer that question at the right time,” Trump said. “I just don’t want to answer it yet.”

“I don’t talk about it anymore,” he tried to explain. “The reason I don’t is because then everyone is going to be talking about it – as opposed to jobs, the military, the vets, security.”

Trump campaign then released a statement – not from Trump himself, but from senior communications adviser Jason Miller – claiming victory for Trump forcing Obama to release his long-form birth certificate, and saying that, because of that evidence, Trump now “believes that President Obama was born in the United States.”

That’s one way to spin this, given the history of all this:

The White House eventually released President Obama’s long-form birth certificate in 2011 – showing that he was, indeed, born in Honolulu in 1961.

Just as that was happening, Trump landed in New Hampshire while flirting with a presidential bid, and claimed victory.

“I’m very proud of myself,” Trump said. “I’ve accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish.”

Cool. He was satisfied then, except he wasn’t. He continued to raise doubts about that birth certificate’s authenticity, and he wanted to see Obama’s college transcripts, which he was certain would show that Obama was a lousy student and only got into Harvard Law School because he was black – denying some worthy white kid a slot there.

In July this year, the New York Times reviewed what he seemed to be up to:

In the birther movement, Mr. Trump recognized an opportunity to connect with the electorate over an issue many considered taboo: the discomfort, in some quarters of American society, with the election of the nation’s first black president. He harnessed it for political gain, beginning his connection with the largely white Republican base that, in his 2016 campaign, helped clinch his party’s nomination.

He doesn’t want to lose those folks now – those “deplorables” who don’t think any nigger should be president (although they might not put it exactly that way) – so now he’s pretty much said he still believes that, more or less. But he wants it both ways and that’s what his staff and surrogates are for:

The statement coming from Miller – and not from Trump himself – is roughly the same as what other top Trump aides have been saying for the past week.

“He believes President Obama was born here,” campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said on CNN last week. “I was born in Camden, by the way, New Jersey. He was born in Hawaii.”

But he shot that down:

Trump’s response to his campaign manager’s comments in the Post interview: “It’s okay – she’s allowed to speak what she thinks. I want to focus on jobs. I want to focus on other things.”

Keep ’em guessing:

His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said earlier this month that he accepts the fact that Obama was born in Hawaii.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani also claimed just last week that the GOP nominee now accepts the president’s legal birthplace.

“Donald Trump believes now that [Obama] was born in the United States,” Giuliani said on CNN. “I believe it. He believes it. We all believe it. It took a long time to get out.”

But while his top surrogates are circulating assertions that Trump has dropped any birther beliefs, the Republican nominee still refuses to say the words, and is keeping the issue alive.

That’s because he sends out tweets like this – “Don’t believe the biased and phony media quoting people who work for my campaign. The only quote that matters is a quote from me!”

He seems to be saying this: Those are direct quotes, but don’t believe the biased and phony media that quotes my people directly and accurately. It’s a trick to make people think that I now think that Obama was and is a legitimate president, not one who is in office illegally and whose every action should be declared null and void and erased from the history books. I may still think that. But I’m not saying – yet.

So, to review, his people can say he’s not a racist asshole with a whacky conspiracy theory, at least not anymore. He will win some of the African-American vote now, and a bit more of the vote of other minority groups, who were just as offended by that birther stuff, because he’s changed. But he himself can say that he might just be that racist asshole that his “deplorables” love so much. Has he changed? He’s not saying, either way. People can guess, either way – and everyone is happy.

But others won’t cut him any slack:

Hillary Clinton didn’t waste any time Thursday night responding to Trump’s initial comments. Less than two hours after The Post published its interview with Trump, Clinton spoke at an event hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute: “He still wouldn’t say ‘Hawaii.’ He still wouldn’t say ‘America.’ This man wants to be our next president? When will he stop this ugliness, this bigotry?”

She also referred to how Trump has tried to refocus his campaign on an affirmative message and avoid more controversial statements.

“This is the best he can do. This is who he is,” Clinton said.

In short, he doesn’t get to play it both ways. He blew it, but Politico reports that he hasn’t blown it:

Just six weeks ago, Hillary Clinton’s advantage in the Electoral College looked insurmountable. Now, based on the latest round of public polls, it’s a different story.

If the election were held today, Donald Trump would apparently win roughly as many electoral votes as Hillary Clinton – who held a commanding lead in early August and seemed to be closing off all possible Trump routes to 270 electoral votes.

But state polling averages, which can be lagging indicators, are beginning to show Trump in the lead. Trump is now ahead in Iowa and Ohio – and he’s tied with Clinton in vote-rich Florida.

A slightly more aggressive estimate could add Nevada, North Carolina and one electoral vote in Maine to Trump’s tally: The New York real-estate magnate is ahead in the most recent polls in Nevada and North Carolina, and in Maine’s Second Congressional District.

That, plus all the other states Mitt Romney won four years ago, would get Trump to 266 electoral votes – just four shy of the 270 needed to win. Clinton’s once-comfortable cushion has been deflated to such an extent that if Trump wins those states and the electoral vote in Maine, he only needs one more state to win – with Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia the most likely targets. And there’s recent polling evidence suggesting he is in striking distance in some of those states.

Trump can win this thing, except for a few factors:

Trump isn’t gaining ground with the voting blocs among whom he has always been weakest: women, more educated voters and racial and ethnic minorities.

In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump earns only 13 percent of the nonwhite vote, showing he isn’t making headway with a growing, traditionally Democratic constituency. But Trump is also lagging among more friendly GOP leaning groups: He wins just 46 percent of white women, including just 40 percent of white women with a college degree. (Mitt Romney won about 56 percent of white female voters in 2012, according to exit polls.)

The Quinnipiac poll was similar: Trump wins just 19 percent of the nonwhite vote, 46 percent of white women and 44 percent of white voters who graduated from college.

These white folks with a bit of education, these women, these minorities, need to listen to Donald Trump’s campaign staff, not to him. Everyone else has to listen to him, not to his campaign staff. That’s a tricky business. They might listen to the wrong party.

That means things could change, and probably will, and the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson sees this:

In a sane and just world, this presidential race would be a walkover. Commentators would already be sketching out their postmortem analyses of an all-but-certain Hillary Clinton victory. Pare the contest down to its essentials: A former senator and secretary of state, eminently qualified to be president, is running against a dangerous demagogue who has never held public office and should not be allowed anywhere near the White House. Ought to be case closed.

But it’s not.

He sees the polls, and he sees what’s happening:

Trump’s current set of handlers – campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and chief executive Steve Bannon – have done a better job than their predecessors of keeping their candidate from committing acts of self-destruction. They have gotten him to use a teleprompter more, rant and rave less, and sometimes go as long as 48 hours without spewing idiotic vitriol on Twitter. These are no small accomplishments.

Conway bravely goes on the cable shows every day and tries to explain the unexplainable. Sometimes she is made into a liar by her own candidate, as happened Wednesday when she denied that Trump would release any medical records on “The Dr. Oz Show,” only to see him do just that a few hours later. Pretty much every time she appears, she has to pretend that one or another of Trump’s nonsensical issue positions makes sense – or, on many issues, that he even has a settled position. But she is unfailingly patient, polite and nonthreatening.

And yes, that just happened again with this birther stuff, but Trump is now dead even with Clinton, which amazes Robinson:

In a larger sense there is no real comparison between Clinton’s serious, inclusive, fact-based campaign and Trump’s noxious stew of bigotry, resentment and juvenile fantasy.

Voters have been informed of Trump’s ignorant and outrageous statements, his real and potential conflicts of interest, his bankruptcies, his hucksterism, his untempered temperament and all the other factors that make him unthinkable as a president. Coverage by the news media brought all this information to light. Don’t blame the media for the fact that many people say they plan to vote for him anyway.

Instead, if you want to stop Trump, focus on the fundamentals – and get busy.

That’s the message for Democrats:

Ordinarily, this would be a tough election for any Democratic candidate to win. That is because, historically, a party that controls the White House for two terms in a row has difficulty winning a third. In addition to that headwind, nearly 70 percent of Americans say they believe the country is on the wrong track – an ominous sign for the incumbent party.

Trump, with his soaring unpopularity and general flakiness, is no normal candidate. Many voters – including many Republicans – obviously believe that while it may be the GOP’s turn to take the helm, it will never be Trump’s turn. Still, there are those who have real doubts about Trump but may still vote for him because they want change.

But the Democratic Party has structural advantages in a presidential year, as Barack Obama so vividly demonstrated. The party’s coalition of women, young people, African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics has growing weight in the electorate. Trump’s base – older, whiter, more male – is a shrinking portion of the overall vote.

And the electoral map favors Democrats, giving Clinton more paths to victory than Trump. If she wins Florida, it’s over. Same if she wins Ohio. And she could even lose both and still get to 270.

It’s time to turn out the base:

Angst doesn’t help. Energizing the Democratic Party’s reliable voters, especially in crucial states, can make all the difference.

She’s working on that, but Matthew Yglesias argues that the race is tightening for a painfully simple reason:

The truth is that Trump is not doing well. Even Trump’s very best recent polls (which, by definition, are outliers that likely overstate his true level of support) show him receiving fewer votes than Republican candidates usually get. A recent CNN poll of Ohio, for example, that gave him a 5-point lead in the crucial swing state also shows him only getting 46 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney and John McCain both did better than that. Clinton’s attacks and Trump’s well-known weaknesses seem to have him losing the support of some GOP loyalists, even in his best polls.

The problem is that Clinton herself is doing worse – because despite her campaign’s emphasis on Trump’s weirdness and unpopularity, that isn’t the only force shaping this race. It’s profoundly unusual across two other dimensions – the strength of third party candidates and the weakness of the frontrunner – that will probably prevent Clinton from ever opening up a sustained comfortable lead unless she can do something to make herself better-liked.

That is the problem here:

Clinton is a freakishly unpopular frontrunner.

Despite a couple of days’ worth of bad polls, Clinton still leads in national polling averages. It remains the case that if the election were held tomorrow, she would win.

In that context, her 42-56 favorable/unfavorable split in national polling is truly, freakishly bad. Political junkies have probably heard the factoid that Clinton is the least-popular major party nominee of all time – except for Donald Trump. But conventional dialogue still underrates exactly how weird this situation is. John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bob Dole were all viewed favorably by a majority of Americans on the eve of presidential elections that they lost, and Mitt Romney was extremely close.

It is totally unheard of to win a presidential election while having deeply underwater favorable ratings, and it is actually quite common to lose one despite above water favorable ratings.

Since there are only two major party nominees in the race and they are both far underwater right now, it’s pretty likely that precedent will be shattered. But we are in a bit of an undiscovered country in terms of the underlying opinion dynamics.

And add to that the complication that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are doing remarkably well:

RealClearPolitics’ four-way polling average shows Gary Johnson at 9.2 percent and Jill Stein at 2.7 percent.

If those numbers hold up (which of course they might not), they would make Johnson the strongest third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992. That’s a big deal. Stein’s strength is, however, even more unusual. She is polling ahead of where Ralph Nader did in 2000 and is the strongest fourth-party candidate we’ve seen in a 100 years, besting both the Thurmond and Wallace tickets from the infamously four-sided election of 1948.

To find a fourth-place candidate polling higher than Stein’s current results, you need to dial all the way back to the 6 percent of the vote Eugene Debs earned in the bizarre 1912 election that saw the GOP nominee (the incumbent, no less!) finish in third place behind a third-party bid spearheaded by ex-president Teddy Roosevelt.

Given all that, Clinton really, really needs to be liked:

Lambasting Trump, while being unpopular herself, would be a clear winning strategy in a zero-sum head-to-head race. But in a four-sided race, where the two lesser candidates aren’t receiving much scrutiny from the press or the campaigns, it tends to have the side consequence of pressing a lot of people to Johnson or Stein. The fact that there are two different third-party candidates in the race – one for people who think Clinton’s too left and one for people who think she’s not left enough – makes it really difficult to avoid bleeding voters.

If polls stay very tight or Trump pulls into a lead, then anti-Trump messaging to Johnson and Stein voters could take the form of classic warnings about spoilers and wasted votes.

But the fact that Clinton has been consistently leading in the polls – and in August was doing so by a large margin – has itself undercut purely tactical arguments for voting Clinton. If she is overwhelmingly likely to win, which is what people have been hearing, then you may as well not vote for her if you don’t like her.

She needs to crank it up:

It’s simply going to be very hard for Clinton to open up the kind of stable lead that her supporters think Trump’s awfulness deserves while she herself is so little-liked. September of a general election year is probably not a great time to turn that around.

But the fact remains that her basic problem in this race is almost painfully simple. Over the course of her winning primary campaign she became a deeply unpopular figure. And it’s hard – indeed, unprecedented – for such an unpopular person to win the presidency.

That means that this election is the nasty ambiguous versus the totally unlikable – not much of a choice – and Mister Ambiguous is about to pull ahead.

Maybe so, but Glenn Thrush points out this:

Everything has gone Trump’s way – and he’s still not ahead. If 2012 was all about the 47 percent, this year – at least for Trump – is defined by the 44 percent. In poll after poll after poll – during the good times and bad, the most disliked politician in the country can never rise (with a few outliers) beyond the 38 to 44 percent range among likely voters (he typically tops out at 42 among registered voters). In a normal year, numbers such as these are in a statistical range that political consultants like to call “the Killing Field.”

He should be doing better:

Clinton’s decision to lie low in August (a time when Trump dumped his Man from Ukraine Paul Manafort and hired the competent professional Kellyanne Conway) will be debated for years. If she wins, her summertime fundraising blitz, meant to unleash a torrent of anti-Trump advertising at campaign’s end, will be regarded as strategic genius; lose and her decision is up there with Michael Dukakis in the tank. But the bigger point: Even with Trump’s nifty new telepromptered campaign, even with Clinton’s paranoia-will-destroy-her decision-making (i.e. covering up her own pneumonia) Trump isn’t doing particularly well. “True to form, he’s underperforming any other Republican candidate in his position,” said a GOP operative who is publicly backing the reality-star-turned-politician. “He’s just now starting to crack Mitt Romney levels, and everything has gone right for him, including an on-camera face-plant by his opponent.”

But that may not matter:

I posited that Clinton’s September stumble was a result of her decision to hammer at Trump’s weaknesses at the expense of defining her own strengths and likability. The same holds true for him – but much, much more so; his improvement has come as a result of her degradation – her own missteps and his “Crooked Hillary” branding has helped drive her negatives from the low 50s to the mid-high 50s, Trump territory.

But unlike Trump, Clinton has edged above the magic 50 percent level in national and state polls. And until he can come close to that level – when there’s a succession of credible national polling showing him hitting 46, 47 or 48 percent – then the fundamental dynamic of the race hasn’t really shifted. Until then, it’s all churn, clamor and horse race.

And then there’s this:

Terrified Democrats are Clinton’s secret weapon. This is the big one, the factor upon which the election truly hinges. Raw, small-mammal fear. Trump’s success might be the only thing that gets many Democrats (or anti-Trump moderates outside the party) to hold their noses and vote Hillary.

The wow in recent national polls is not Trump’s rise, but the fact that more Trump voters are psyched about their candidate than Democrats are jazzed about their less-than-exciting nominee. In the Times survey, 51 percent of Trump supporters were enthusiastic about him vs. 43 percent of Clinton supporters who were thrilled about her. But fear is as powerful an emotion as love in politics (it’s why negative ads work and the decision by Jeb Bush’s super PAC to dump tens of millions into positive ads was so bad) – and Democrats are panicking, in a way that could be good news for their underperforming nominee.

Ultimately, Trump Terror has been at the core of Clinton’s strategy since the end of the primary, and it’s why her comment about half of Trump supporters being in a “basket of deplorables” probably won’t do any long-term damage: It’s basically still a base election, and she needs to get them out to win.

That might work:

The endgame strategy, here, in a quote: I ran into a top adviser to Clinton at a social event earlier this week, and asked him how things were going. “How the hell do you think it’s going? We’re probably going to win, but there’s a 30 to 40 percent chance we are going to elect a fucking madman for the White House.” Then the guy headed for the bar.

Who wouldn’t? But consider the voters. Trump is doing the birther thing again, or maybe he isn’t – he won’t say. What are voters to make of that? And no one really likes Hillary Clinton. She might do. She might have to do – but that’s a dismal prospect. Of course, those who just cannot vote for her, and stay home, get Trump elected, which is even more dismal. Those who sit this one out because they cannot vote for Trump get stuck with her – so it’s probably best to vote, maybe.

Oh, what the hell. Go for the freakishly unpopular competent one, not for the nastily ambiguous incompetent one. Who says our president has to be likable? Ambiguity could get us all killed.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Ambiguous versus the Unlikable

  1. Rick says:

    Seriously, did you realize, before the other day, that Donald Trump was not on record as believing Barrack Obama was born in the United States? I didn’t. I guess I haven’t been keeping up with politics as much as I thought I was.

    I thought, once Obama’s long-form birth certificate became public, that Trump accepted it as legit, and even — rather presumptuously, I should say! — tried to claim credit for doing the country a favor by forcing Obama to release it, although that was something only he and his fellow whackadoodles would care about anyway. I guess I was wrong in thinking it was no longer an issue, since, this last week, it resurfaced and was tossed, not-very-elegantly, into that toy box known as Trump Campaign Strategy, a box that is continuously threatening to run short of fresh doodads to play with.

    It’s like Roseanne Rosannadanna used to say:

    “Well, Jane, it just goes to show you, it’s always something — if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”

    Have I used this Roseanne Roseannadanna analogy here before? I may have. It’s been a longstanding explanation of mine of how the penny-wise Trump campaign keeps itself in the news:

    (1) Trump says something stupid on Wednesday, and won’t retract it;

    (2) The news shows debate it all day Thursday,

    (3) And on Friday, Trump announces that he takes it back.

    (4) That sets up the weekend talking-head show panels of pundits to gum all about it, from every angle, and then we have a new week to start the nonsense over again.

    And for all those out there who blame the media for Republican successes, look closely at this whole birther affair as an example of how easy it is for just about anybody to manipulate the media, and ask yourself, how would you handle this? People of all political stripes want to know about Trump’s latest scams, and Trump knows people do, and Trump knows the press has to drop everything else to report it. After all, when you have strict journalistic principles you follow, you’re just predictable enough to allow some evil actor to take over the controls. It was bound to happen; it was only a matter of time.

    So Trump promotes a news conference he’s having on Friday morning in which he will be making a “major statement”, hinting it will be about the birther issue, and at the very end of using all these decorated veterans as human shields for a half-an-hour, he drops in a thirty-second statement that only raises other questions, and then, pretending he’s ending the press’s unhealthy preoccupation with his birtherism once and for all, so now we can get back to “Making America Great Again”, he ends his performance by dramatically walking away to lead a tour of his stupid new hotel, while strong-arming the network TV pool producer off the tour, while letting the camera crew on through.

    But why would the national TV networks want to use their precious time covering some local hotel grand opening? So the DC bureau chiefs, who manage the pool, then voted to pull the pool crew out and to not release whatever useless video it shot.

    It’s also worth noting that, the night before, after Trump’s campaign staff screwed up the flight arrangements for the traveling press, he left them stranded in New Jersey while he went ahead to his rally in New Hampshire, then mocked them at the event for their absence:

    Trump publicly mocked his own traveling press corps for showing up late, a turn of events that his own campaign staff caused.

    “I have really good news for you,” Trump told about 1,000 people in a New Hampshire middle school gymnasium. “I just heard that the press is stuck on their airplane.”

    “They can’t get here. I love it! So they’re trying to get here now. They’re gonna be about 30 minutes late.”

    “They called us and said, ‘Could you wait?’”, he claimed. “I said, ‘absolutely not.'”

    Each reporter apparently pays about $15,000 per week to the campaign for travel arrangements. Can they sue the campaign? Maybe, but it’s probably not worth the trouble. This is not likely to happen on Hillary’s events, since in her campaign, the press flies with her on the same plane.

    Trump treats the media like just another toy in his toy box, which might or might not someday backfire on him. While his treatment of the press will immediately disqualify him with some voters, others, who don’t understand the role of journalists as standing in for the public, and don’t see a slight of the press as a slight on themselves, will think it’s a hoot.

    I need to repeat this:

    Those people who remember learning in school that a free press is a necessary fixture in good countries, understand that when a politician fucks over the press, he’s fucking over those that the press ultimately serve, which is the public. And those who don’t remember that sort of thing from school will probably be voting for Donald Trump anyway.

    But is it just me, or has Donald Trump single-handedly changed the way the press covers politics in this country, maybe forever?

    There was a time, back when the differences between the parties were not so great, the national news media took an objective approach to each side, not wanting to question the veracity of anyone’s stance for fear of being accused of partisan bias.

    But times have changed. Trump has so completely flooded the public square with outrageous lies and sleazy innuendo, reporters and anchors have had no choice but to make it their job to call him out on every one of them. For example, this morning, every reporter I heard reporting this story made sure to insert words to the effect, “and he has wrongly claimed that Hillary Clinton was the first to question where president Obama was born.”

    So is this the end of objective journalism? From now on, will there not be a dime’s worth of difference between “objective reporters” and “liberal reporters”? Time will tell. Maybe when this election is behind them, journalists will find a way to write new rules of political coverage.

    Meanwhile, what’s your decision: Do you stop covering his campaign, just to spite the sonofabitch? That certainly would be fun!

    But no, you keep on going. After all, just because the candidate keeps acting like an asshole doesn’t mean you can stop doing your job.

    And maybe the worst thing is, as stupid as he is — and make no mistake, just because he knows how to play the press doesn’t mean he’s not stupid — but as stupid as he is, the asshole knows you’re in a bind.

    Rick

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