In politics, summer is the silly season. Aficionados may hang on every policy pronouncement and campaign tactic, but voters themselves have got better things to do, whether it’s vacationing, managing school-free kids or just tending to the rest of their lives.
But now, with Labor Day behind us and the election just two months away, things will start to turn serious. Voters will start to pay attention to the choices before them. And as they do, it is Donald Trump who seems better positioned for the home stretch.
In May, I wrote that Trump had a serious chance of winning the presidency. The intervening months had appeared a sharp rebuttal of that claim. July featured a disastrous convention for the Republicans and weeks of self-inflicted wounds by Trump — such as his trashing of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan. Meanwhile, the Democrats put on a good show in Philadelphia, quietly stifling a possible revolt by supporters of Bernie Sanders. Clinton’s national polling advantage over Trump started climbing, in mid-August hitting 8 percent in Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls. At the same time, the respected FiveThirtyEight.com gave Clinton a spectacular 89 percent chance of victory. The Trump campaign appeared in tatters; remember the widespread speculation that a demoralized Trump might quit the race altogether? A Clinton win looked to be a near-lock.
...just as we enter the critical, closing weeks of the campaign, the pieces are falling into place for a Trump resurgence.
Then September arrived. Suddenly, the polls started to tighten. Clinton’s average margin, according to Real Clear Politics, is now under 4 points. Indeed, a respected poll from the LA Times puts Trump ahead. FiveThirtyEight, too, is less sanguine (albeit, still at decent 67 percent).
Trump found discipline.
Trump’s numbers plummeted in July and August as his often bizarre off-the-cuff pronouncements drowned out his core campaign messaging. Things came to a breaking point in mid-August, with a dramatic upheaval in the campaign’s senior echelons that put the tag team of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway in charge. The sideshows ended. Trump started reading from a teleprompter. He finally seems to understand that if he genuinely wants the presidency, he’s got to let the pros run the show.
Trump is moderating.
Granted, it’s taken him a while. Winning the presidency requires securing votes from the 40 percent or more of Americans who are self-described “independents.” Trump in the past spoke only to his much more extreme base. But his new campaign team understands political realities. Thus, the anti-immigration stalwart is now talking about “softening” his stance. So too, Trump is making (often jarringly clumsy) attempts to reach out to African-Americans. That won’t win him many black votes — African-Americans are still solidly Democratic — but it will help him with white centrists looking favorably on his efforts.
Trump is brash and unpredictable.
Oftentimes, of course, this hurts him. But his recent trip to Mexico was a thing of genius. Meeting with the head of state of a nation he has vilified made Trump look gutsy. And he came across as strong too, while the over-matched Enrique Peña Nieto looked almost obsequious. Clinton, meanwhile, is painfully predictable; her playbook for the next two months is to try to grind out a win. Trump has the ability to shake things up. If he does so smartly, he can remake the race.
Shocking as it may be to many, the candidate written off by pundits a month ago could well be the 45th president of the United States.
Clinton can’t seem to escape her scandals.
One can debate how serious the scandals dogging Clinton really are; she describes them — correctly, I think — as more “smoke” than “fire.” But the fact is, the smoke so dense that it’s becoming hard to see anything else. The most recent outbreak — the FBI’s release of its interviews over her use of a personal email server — has even fans shaking their heads. More than 13 separate devices? Two crushed by hammers? At least 39 incidents where she testified she couldn’t recall? New scandals may pop up about Trump too, but aside from his taxes (which he won’t release), it’s unclear what they are. Meanwhile, Clinton has given her opponent fodder galore.
True, Clinton continues to have a small edge in most current polls as well as a projected lead in the Electoral College (as Al Gore knows well, Trump could win the popular vote but still lose the presidency). Moreover, Clinton’s superior field operation gives her an important advantage when it comes to Democratic-leaning voters who are Hispanic or African-American.
Yet just as we enter the critical, closing weeks of the campaign, the pieces are falling into place for a Trump resurgence. There is still much drama to come, of course, including three presidential debates. But for the moment, it is Clinton who seems on the ropes while Trump has the initiative. Shocking as it may be to many, the candidate written off by pundits a month ago could well be the 45th president of the United States.