Comedian Bill Maher captured the anxiety of Democrats about the presidential election when he returned to his weekly HBO show in mid-September after a summer hiatus. “When I left five weeks ago, Hillary had a huge lead,” said the host of Real Time. “What the fuck happened? They say the race is tightening. My asshole is tightening.”
That graphic response is understandable for many voters. Hillary Clinton no longer has a huge lead—in fact, she’s trailing in some swing states—although her numbers seem to be creeping back up nationally. Liberals who had been dismissing Donald Trump as a blow-dried bloviator now see an electable bloviator—something his Republican competitors came to understand as the mogul won primary after primary. Now the question is, Can Trump really get 270 electoral votes?
The answer is yes, just as it always is for any nominee of one of the two major parties, but Clinton still holds advantages that make this race hers to lose. Democrats know that, which is why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s vehicle for promoting House candidates, has been sending out a flurry of alarmist fundraising notes, like the one with the subject line “Kiss All Hope Goodbye,” and the text “TRUMP +3 in Ohio, 538 says if he wins Ohio he’s got 67% odds to be PRESIDENT.” (FiveThirtyEight, the website edited by Nate Silver, is known for its prescient analysis of elections and takes its name from the total number of electoral votes. Its odds of Trump winning rose from as low as 10.4 percent on August 14 to 43.1 by September 21.)
Clinton knows the debates are crucial, which is why she spent weeks prepping with briefing books when she was on the road, as well as with practice sessions back home in New York’s Westchester County. After swimming in political vitriol for four decades, she had to know this wasn’t going to be easy. That’s just how presidential elections are in a country where voters are split almost evenly between the two main parties. With swing voters as rare as centrists in Congress, landslides like Ronald Reagan’s—who defeated Walter Mondale in 1984 by more than 18 percent—just aren’t happening anymore. Margins in presidential elections have not been nearly as big since then: In 2000, George W. Bush squeezed past Al Gore in the electoral college but lost the popular vote by 0.5 percent; in 2004, his margin over John Kerry was just 2.4 percent. Amidst the economic hellscape of the 2008 election, Barack Obama won by a strong but hardly Reaganesque 7.2 percent over John McCain, and that dropped to 3.9 percent when he beat Mitt Romney in 2012. Just by being the Republican nominee, Trump is a plausible winner, not the easily beatable fool Democrats once assumed he would be.
Climbing the Blue Wall
Despite all that, Clinton still has clear advantages, the first being that Trump is scrambling to consolidate the Republican vote, which is astounding this late in the campaign. His challenge here is exemplified by George H.W. Bush, a former president, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and son of a Republican senator, who said he’s not voting for Trump. For him to support the Democratic nominee, the wife of the man who drove him from office in 1992, shows how profoundly Trump has offended many Republicans, including Romney, the party’s last nominee, who is in the “Never Trump” camp. Bush’s sons, Jeb and George W., haven’t gone so far as to say they’ll vote for Clinton, but they’ve let it be known that they’re not backing Trump. Dozens of Republican administration appointees, including Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, are also balking at voting for Trump. In August, only about 75 percent of Republicans, in various polls, said they are supporting the reality star, far below the high 80s typical for the nominee of either party. Recent polls show some signs that Republicans are coming home, but it’s bad for the GOP nominee to still be worrying about corralling his party’s voters.
Another big plus for Clinton is the electoral college map. It gives her an edge, as it did for Obama. RealClear Politics, which aggregates multiple polls and analyses, estimates Clinton already has 201 electoral votes in her pocket, while Trump has 164. (A candidate needs 270 to win.) This blue wall—states that have leaned strongly Democratic since 1992—is a big part of why Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six national elections, and it puts Trump in a precarious position. To make it close, he must carry all the states Romney won, and that won’t be easy. Demographic changes, especially the spike in the Hispanic population, make Clinton competitive in Romney states like Arizona and Georgia, which were once thought far out of her reach. Trump can’t win without those two states, and Clinton has pulled even in North Carolina, which Romney won. It’s the ninth most populous state, with 15 electoral votes, and Trump doesn’t have a lot of options for getting those votes elsewhere: The Hispanic surge should help Clinton take Virginia and Colorado, which used to be toss-up states.
This electoral college advantage means Trump has to pull an inside straight, according to Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s presidential victories. The mogul has to steal at least two of the three largest swing states that went for Obama in his two elections—Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. And then he still needs to pick up smaller states like New Hampshire, whose four electoral votes have gone Democratic since 2004.
Digging His Hate Hole
Clinton has another big advantage: an expertly staffed, cash-rich, high-tech operation built to get Democratic voters to the polls. Compared with the Republicans, her campaign has thousands more volunteers in the field using the best smartphone software to target voters. A Clinton canvasser may arrive at your door knowing your voting history, contributions and other data, and after he or she talks to you for a few minutes, the “Vote Hillary” emails and leaflets you receive (and even the ads you might see on Facebook) will likely be tailor-made for you. The Trump campaign is laughably behind in this regard—it has no army and maintains just a couple of offices in Florida, for example, where Clinton has 57.
Trump is relying on the Republican Party to do his field work, such as door-to-door canvassing. But that’s no match for the Clinton operation, combined with the Democratic Party and the shoe-leather work of pro-Clinton groups such as unions. As Bloomberg Politics recently pointed out, the Trump campaign’s reliance on state Republican parties could mean it’s not reaching the right voters. A third of the voters in this election are expected to cast their ballots early, beginning in mid-September, and while the Republican Party naturally makes turning out straight-ticket Republicans its highest priority, Trump has different requirements and appeals to a different group. His campaign really needs to be canvassing independents too, since they were a big part of his primary wins, and he needs to do this quickly, before all those early ballots are cast. “There is no Trump campaign [here], really,” one Republican consultant working in Ohio, a crucial swing state, tells Newsweek. “She has all the infrastructure.”
Trump’s campaign hasn’t even figured out how to exploit the tantalizing opportunities presented by his raucous rallies. It should be getting the demographic data and contact info of all the attendees, so it can make sure they rally themselves to vote come Election Day. Instead, there’s been little follow-through once the TV lights are turned off and the cheering has stopped.
Clinton also has a huge money advantage. Her campaign and support groups have raised $516 million, versus just $201 million raised by Trump and his backers. (Trump has put $54 million of his money into his campaign, which is a lot, but it also suggests he’s hardly worth the $10 billion he claims. He’s also taken a lot of that back in rent paid to his building, contracts given to his kids, the salaries of Trump Organization staff detailed to the campaign, etc.) At the end of August, Clinton had $194 million in cash on hand, even after spending five times more on TV ads than Trump that month. By contrast, Trump had $103 million cash on hand. His campaign had counted on Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson to donate about $100 million to pro-Trump groups, but in mid-September the casino magnate announced he was giving only $5 million. And the famed Koch brothers have shut out Trump, which may be the bigger blow, since their affiliated groups have not only cash but also some of the best turnout operations on the Republican side.
Another thing Clinton has going for her is Trump’s seemingly limitless capacity to offend. Women vote at higher rates than men and have a much more negative view of Trump than they do of Clinton. It could be a devastating blow to his campaign if he acts out in the debates or offers even a whiff of the sexist talk that swirled around him in the early Republican primaries. Recall that the first words Trump spoke at any presidential debate were in response to Fox moderator Megyn Kelly asking him about calling women pigs, to which he replied, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” The reality TV star was also flummoxed when Carly Fiorina pushed back against his ugly comment about her “face.” This kind of misogyny suggests Clinton could bait Trump merely by repeating his numerous demeaning comments about women.
Trump has also shown an ability to drive his poll numbers sharply down with his insults and Twitter feuds. Back in June, with Trump under fire for his defunct Trump University allegedly taking advantage of students, he took a thumping in the polls after he chided Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who presides over a California case against Trump University, saying the jurist couldn’t be impartial because of his Mexican heritage. This was a misstep far different from when the mogul couldn’t identify the nuclear triad or mused casually about defaulting on the national debt, or even his other fits of bigotry, like calling Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts “Pocahontas” because of her claims of Native American ancestry. Many voters seemed prepared to forgive vast ignorance and malice as long as Trump was mouthing on behalf of the little guy, but his attack on Curiel sounded far more like self-pity than concern for the economic plight of all Americans.
After a strong, sharply crafted Democratic convention at the end of July, Trump dug himself even deeper into this hate hole by starting a fight with the Khan family, American Muslims whose son, Humayun, an Army captain, died in Afghanistan and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. With the Republican candidate for president dissing a Gold Star family, it was no wonder that his negatives rose.
And it was no wonder that Trump turned to a new campaign team.
Bernie’s Spiteful Kids
Despite these many advantages, Clinton can still blow it. Trump has a solid chance of winning because of both her weaknesses and his strengths. It’s hard to make an argument for change, when polls show Americans are yearning for it, if you’re a representative of the status quo. Clinton is having trouble holding some parts of the Obama coalition central to his victories in 2008 and 2012. Named the “coalition of the ascendant” by author Ronald Brownstein, it’s heavy on minorities, young people and educated professionals, especially women. Clinton is running into trouble with younger voters, which makes some sense because she struggled to dispatch Bernie Sanders, who consistently won 18- to 29-year-old voters during the Democratic primaries. After that bitter contest, Sanders is stumping for Clinton, but that hasn’t staunched the bleeding. Two third-party candidates are siphoning off young voters from Clinton: Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. Johnson’s candidacy is also drawing Republicans, of course—he was expected initially to hurt Trump more than Clinton. Johnson is, after all, a former Republican governor running with a fellow former Republican governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld. But analyses show Johnson seems to be hurting Clinton more. In several polls, Clinton’s nationwide lead over Trump shrinks by a couple of percentage points when voters are asked about a three-way race that includes Johnson. The four-way matchup yields a similar result, and nobody thinks Stein is pulling her (meager) support from Trump.
Another way Clinton could lose is if her strong Hispanic support weakens even a bit. Overall, Hispanics are a huge boon to her campaign, as they were for Obama. But in some states, her margin of Hispanic support over Trump is slipping, and she’s drawing fewer Hispanics than Obama, who won that demographic 71 to 29 over Mitt Romney. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls has Clinton around earning the support of 63 percent of Hispanics and Trump with 25 percent. With Hispanics accounting for about 12 percent of eligible voters in the U.S., that kind of difference between what Obama got and what Clinton can expect could shave a full percentage point off Clinton’s national tally and might even tip some states with high percentages of Hispanics. Despite Trump’s proposals to slash immigration and to deport undocumented aliens, the would-be builder of a border wall is doing surprisingly well with Hispanics—perhaps because some don’t believe his rhetoric. Some 40 percent don’t think he would follow through on his deportation plan.
White Makes Might
Clinton also has a white working-class problem. It’s a manageable woe if that demographic, largely Trump supporters, votes at normal levels, but it would swamp her if the group comes out strong (and angry) on Election Day, and some polling suggests Trump voters are more motivated than Clinton’s folks. Look at Florida, which might once again be the pivotal state in a presidential election. Obama won it twice, and it should be prime ground for Clinton, but Trump’s strength with white voters has him tied in the Sunshine State, even though it is 20 percent Hispanic and 17 percent African-American. If Trump can beat Clinton there, it’s reasonable to think that an even whiter swing state, such as Ohio (14 percent African-American and 3 percent Hispanic), would likely turn red.
Think of states that contain a lot of lower-income whites—say, Kentucky or West Virginia—and how they’ve been completely removed from the Democratic column, and you’ll understand Clinton’s dilemma. Her standing with lower-income whites is so poor, it’s prevented her from campaigning in Arkansas, even though she resided in the state for 18 years and was its first lady, her husband was elected to statewide office seven times in addition to president twice, and her name (along with her husband’s) is on the airport in the capital, Little Rock.
I recently drove almost 2,000 miles through rural Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia—states and regions that have huge concentrations of non-college whites. The evidence of Trump’s strength and Clinton’s weakness was everywhere. While Trump signs were everywhere, only a couple of Clinton signs were visible driving through Louisville and Cincinnati. When I stopped for the night on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River, the hotelier who greeted me went on an unsolicited rant about the election. He said he hated Trump the liar, but he saved his greatest ire for the former first lady, calling her a “lying, conniving, psychopathic bitch .” It’s anecdotal but revealing of what is perhaps Clinton’s greatest liability in this election: the decades-long vilification of her by conservatives, her own furtive behavior and the pervasive distrust that has engendered. An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll in mid-September found a plurality of voters think Trump is more trustworthy than Clinton. Still, the same poll showed her winning by 5 percent in a head-to-head matchup—a sign that some of those who distrust her will vote for her nevertheless.
Scandal du Jour
The other problem for Clinton is the seemingly endless spreadsheet of “scandals,” most of which have little or nothing to them. A prime example is the ongoing furor over her use of a private server while serving as secretary of state. As Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald has explained in copious detail, her handling (and mishandling) of emails was not much different from that of other former Cabinet members. But the headlines have hurt her, as have the accusations of pay-for-play at the Clinton Foundation, another faux scandal that helped drive down her numbers in August and September. Irony will put a gun to its head if Clinton loses because of a charity that helped save millions of lives—and to a man whose charity may be best known for being used to settle a lawsuit against him. How conservatives turned the Clinton Foundation from applause line to albatross is not unlike what other Democratic nominees have endured. In 2004, John Kerry proudly talked about volunteering to serve in Vietnam. Republicans took what seemed like a killer narrative—Yalie enlists in the Navy out of duty and then leads veteran opposition to the war—and “swift-boated” the Massachusetts senator, turning his service aboard ships patrolling Vietnamese rivers, known as swift boats, into a character flaw instead of an asset.
Something similar happened with Clinton. A conservative group’s lawsuit led to the release of emails that suggested donors to the foundation received favors from the secretary of state. That’s not what happened, but the charges played into the pre-existing notion that she’s not trustworthy. When the former secretary of state had a health scare during a 9/11 event and was infuriatingly slow to admit that she had pneumonia, her numbers declined further because they added to the impression that she was hiding yet another scandal. When she snobbishly relegated “half” of Trump supporters into a now infamous “basket of deplorables” at a fundraiser in September, her numbers took another hit.
Roll all that up, and the fanciful talk in early August of a landslide—of her being competitive even in South Carolina, one of the reddest states—has been replaced by fretting that she won’t be able to hold Ohio and Nevada. And if that happens, Trump may need to start forwarding his mail to D.C.
I Come to Barry Trump
There’s something else in this campaign that haunts Clinton and no small number of Democrats and Republicans: the possibility that Trumpism isn’t going away, even if Trump loses. At its core, Trumpism is about not only slashing illegal immigration but making a dramatic cut in legal immigration too (an idea that’s little noted by the press). Combine that with a retreat from foreign commitments (see the mogul’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward NATO) and hyper-protectionism, and you’ve got an ideology that didn’t just spring out of Trump’s formidable brow. This is a movement fueled by the huge migration of those working-class whites into the GOP, and they were in the tent long before Trump threatened to burn it down. His galvanizing effect on all those angry at globalization kept the movement growing. It’s aligned with the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and the rise of anti-immigration parties in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It’s homegrown, extreme isolationism.
Here, history is instructive: Reading newspapers from the fall of 1964 should humble anyone who writes and thinks about politics. Amid the Mad Men –style ads for furs and cigarettes, there is extensive coverage of the presidential race between Republican Barry Goldwater and Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson. The press predicted Johnson would crush Goldwater, and he did. What it didn’t realize is that Goldwater would have an important influence on the GOP for decades. The repudiation of Goldwater by voters led reporters to predict that conservatism was dead—just as many Republican and Democrats now believe that a Trump defeat will end Trumpism. Newsweek made no mention back then of Ronald Reagan, the star of the 30-minute Goldwater ad that made him a conservative icon and propelled him to the governorship of California two years later. Time magazine predicted that “the future of conservatism lay with moderate men.” In fact, conservatives would continue to gather strength in the Republican Party, while liberal Rockefeller Republicans became an endangered and then extinct species.
Trump is not Goldwater, of course. Goldwater was drafted by conservatives like the recently deceased Phyllis Schlafly, who would go on to lead the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and was made famous by her best-selling attack on liberal Republicanism, A Choice Not an Echo, and William Buckley, the influential author and magazine editor. The Arizonan senator was a serious man with serious ideas, and getting crushed by LBJ didn’t change that. It’s not that we live in a Goldwater world, but his ideas about cutting domestic spending and regulation while funding a military buildup influenced his protégé Reagan, who is now the godhead of conservatives.
Even if there is no President Trump, he could loom large over the Clinton presidency. All those angry working-class white voters will still be screaming for more jobs, fewer immigrants and the overthrow of the political class at whose head, if she doesn’t choke, may be a former Goldwater Girl, President Hillary Clinton.