There have been presidential debates in every election since 1976, but there has never been a spectacle like what we saw this evening because we have never seen a candidate as fragile and unprepared as Donald Trump. I said yesterday that the bar for Trump was set so low it was glued to the floor, yet he was unable to surpass it. Trump showed up for an episode of reality TV but what he found was a formidable opponent who came prepared for a job interview in front of one-hundred million people. Set aside for a moment Trump’s word salad answers, turn off the volume and look at body language and facial expressions. Trump was angry and defensive to the point where he couldn’t control his rage. Clinton was poised, practiced and in charge. She looked like a president. He looked petulant. If there had been a mercy rule, this debate would have been called by 10 pm.
We said yesterday that Hillary faced a challenge in debating an unpredictable and unconventional candidate, and I suggested that her best strategy might be to pick at Trump’s ego with calculated putdowns without appearing overbearing. She did that and more, controlling the debate from start to finish and aggressively attacking Trump’s character and accomplishments. We said Trump would have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile, and I expected him to exercise some restraint, at least at first. But he couldn’t control himself. He spent the debate with his face contorted in anger, and he constantly interrupted and lashed out at Clinton. He appeared the bully while Hillary remained calm. To say this will not go over well with the white educated women he needs to win Pennsylvania is a bit of an understatement.
I was surprised by how much this debate resembled the primary debates where Trump avoided policy specifics and self-restraint. Only this time his opponent dominated him, and he reacted by becoming increasingly unhinged. Much can and will be written about the questionable content of many of his answers in contrast to Clinton’s cogent responses, but I think the biggest takeaway will be the contrast between Clinton’s presidential cool and Trump’s disqualifying temperament. It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with the aftermath of being humiliated on such a large stage. His history suggests he will try to strike back angrily to reassert his dominance, potentially compounding the damage he did tonight. As we said yesterday, debates historically do not determine elections. The structure of this contest has been stable and the electorate remains deeply divided. But too many people watched Trump reinforce the doubts they harbor about him for tonight’s fiasco not to move the polls in Clinton’s direction, and for someone who is incapable of losing that will be a heavy burden to bear.
Here are a few points to help you survive the debate phase of the campaign, which starts Monday and ends October 19:
- They are not debates: At best they are joint press conferences. At worst they illustrate everything that’s wrong with style-over-substance election coverage. Although the candidates may at times engage one another, nobody is keeping score, and they will talk past each other if that’s what their strategies require. The public gets to see the candidates side by side, which can facilitate useful comparisons, but don’t expect them to stay on topic or answer questions if it doesn’t suit them.
- Watch for nonverbal communication: Except for those rare viral moments, we won’t remember much of what’s said on the debate stage. But we will internalize how it was communicated, and we may not be fully conscious of our reactions. Clinton is not a natural orator but she can be effective in small group settings, and she will need to have those interpersonal skills working for her. Communicating in an easy, relatable manner is the best way for her to address her significant trust issues and “surpass expectations” with a press corps expecting her to come across as wonkish and aloof. Trump, on the other hand, has a showman’s sense of the moment but lacks self-control. He will certainly be advised to modulate his presentation to look respectable, but he will have to maintain that posture for a very long time.
- Gender will be an ever-present subtext: As the first female major party nominee, Clinton will be confronting deeply engrained biases about how women communicate strength and competence. She will not have the latitude to go after Donald Trump the way Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden would, will almost certainly have to suffer through commentary about her clothing choices, and may face a replay of the Matt Lauer commander-in-chief interview where she was repeatedly interrupted. At the same time, Trump will have to refrain from being overly aggressive to avoid coming across as hostile. In a 2000 senate debate, Clinton’s male opponent left the podium and walked into her space on the debate stage. She was effectively elected at that point.
More on the latest polls by way of a quick lesson on public opinion. Over the past weeks as polls have tightened, it has been tempting to assume that people are changing their minds and moving their support from Clinton to Trump. It’s intuitive to believe that two candidates are moving closer to each other because one is picking up support from the other. Public opinion can in fact move like this if enough people undergo a change of heart about the candidates.
But public opinion also has a characteristic called intensity: how strongly people feel about something. In election polling, how strongly people feel about a candidate can be a good proxy for how likely they are to vote. For that matter, low intensity voters may be less likely to sit through a pollster’s questions, keeping their preferences from being recorded in the first place. And that may explain what we’ve been seeing in the September polling.
There’s good reason to believe Hillary’s September swoon is about changes in the intensity of her support, not wholesale movement from her camp to Trump. Two of the constants in this election season are a high degree of polarization and unprecedented levels of disaffection with the major candidates. These characteristics have combined to provide this election with an unusually high degree of stability, with Clinton maintaining a lead ranging from narrow to comfortable. In this environment, it is extremely difficult to change minds and get large numbers of voters to jump from one team to the other. But it is fairly easy for candidates going through a rough stretch to turn weak supporters into undecided voters and demoralize their partisans.
From late August, when she was fundraising rather than campaigning, through late last week, Clinton has faced negative press about her integrity and health, was the subject of intense scrutiny for her “basket of deplorables” comment, and lost the better part of a week recuperating from pneumonia. In a campaign where both candidates are widely disliked, periods of extended press attention correlate with falling poll numbers as voters are reminded of what Read More
We awoke this morning to a new campaign reality. The elite media are calling Donald Trump a liar:
“Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic” – New York Times
“Trump Admits Obama Was Born In US, But Falsely Blames Clinton For Rumors” – Washington Post
“We just got played.” – John King on CNN
For the first time in this election cycle, the consensus media frame questioned the veracity of the Republican presidential nominee in blunt and certain terms. Consider this lede from the Post:
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday acknowledged for the first time that President Obama was born in the United States, ending his long history of stoking unfounded doubts about the nation’s first African American president but also seeking to falsely blame Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for starting the rumors.
Or consider this lede from the Associated Press:
After five years as the chief promoter of a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace, Donald Trump abruptly reversed course Friday and acknowledged the fact that the president was born in America. He then immediately peddled another false conspiracy. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Trump declared, enunciating each word in a brief statement at the end of a campaign appearance. “Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.” But as the GOP presidential nominee sought to put that false conspiracy theory to rest, he stoked another, claiming the “birther movement” was begun by his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. There is no evidence this is true.”
Until yesterday, the press was unwilling to call Trump a liar for fear of undermining their capacity to remain neutral in their coverage. So what changed? Perhaps it was the sense, as John King put it, that reporters had been suckered into Read More
The past few weeks have been hard on the Clinton campaign and it’s showing up in the polls as an erosion of support nationwide. But only in the past few days have I started receiving panicky email from liberal and #NeverTrump readers finding themselves for the first time imagining a Trump presidency as more than a reality TV plot turn. Despite my efforts to caution against reading too much into individual polling, two surveys released yesterday showing Trump with a low single-digit lead in Ohio seem to have breached a psychological barrier for some who had taken comfort in the blue bulwark which for months had dominated the electoral map. So allow me to offer some perspective on the Ohio polls in an effort to reassure those readers, then address the important message the polls are giving us.
About a week ago, I wrote that the structure of the presidential race had not changed in a meaningful way for months. In the interim, Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia, was criticized for keeping it secret for two days, was captured on video losing her balance as she left a September 11 remembrance in New York, faced a wall of critical coverage for packing half of Trump’s supporters into a “basket of deplorables” (an awkward turn of phrase which brings to mind something you should be able to order on Amazon), then was invisible in the campaign as she recovered from her illness. And the structure of the presidential race still has not changed in a meaningful way. As we have seen at other moments when the news agenda focused negatively on Clinton, weak supporters who may not particularly like her headed to Gary Johnson or undecided, but Clinton and Trump continued to bounce around in the same range of support.
So what happened in Ohio? Four polls were released covering roughly the same survey period: a Bloomberg Politics poll showing Trump up by five, a CNN poll showing Trump up by four, a Quinnipiac poll showing Trump up by one, and a CBS/YouGov poll showing Clinton up by seven. Clearly all these results cannot be true, even if you account for the Read More
Labor Day is behind us and we are about to be bombarded by post-holiday national and statewide polls marking the traditional start of the general election campaign. Of course, the notion that the campaign begins in the fall is a fiction left over from a time when presidential candidates declared their intentions in the same calendar year as the election. In reality, the presidential campaign is starting to wind down. Even though we have seen a number of polls suggesting the presidential contest is tightening there have been no changes to the fundamental structure of the race. To help you navigate the upcoming polling overload, here are four brief things to remember:
1. Hillary Clinton is still favored. Why? Because of this:
Remember this map from a few weeks ago? It portrays states where Hillary has a built-in demographic or political advantage, enough states for her to win the election. And this is without states where Clinton has an edge or is competitive, like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Georgia and Arizona. At this point, it will take a significant external event to alter the dynamics of a race where Clinton has numerous paths to 270 and Trump does not. Read More
Remember Mitt Romney? The guy Republican voters spent months trying not to nominate until they simply ran out of viable alternatives? The guy who spent most of the campaign pretending he had never been a moderate governor of a liberal northeastern state? The guy who ran away from his signature health care reform accomplishment lest it be seen as the model for Obamacare? Who chose Paul Ryan as a running mate to strengthen his conservative credentials? Who tried to convince his base that he was not just conservative but severely conservative?
As the campaign entered its final months, Mitt Romney had a problem. He had spent so much time doing repair work with his skeptical base that he had been unable to position himself properly for the general election. Romney had spent the summer months trying to reassure base voters who neither liked, trusted nor wanted him that he understood and would represent their interests, giving him no latitude to embrace the moderate credentials that would have had general election appeal. Romney wanted to execute a general election pivot like most nominees do but he could not risk alienating core voters who were at best reluctantly on board.
Romney was running close to President Obama but he was unable to close a gap of several points, and the voters he needed were turned off by severe conservatism. So Romney did something startling. In the first presidential debate, he jettisoned the severe rhetoric and presented himself to a national audience as someone who had always been a pragmatic moderate, as though the primary campaign had never happened. He gambled that voters who were just Read More
Eight years ago, the economic meltdown gave Democrats control of the White House and Congress and an opportunity to govern in a more leftward direction for a brief two-year period. The resulting burst of government activism produced landmark legislation like the Affordable Care Act, the economic stimulus package and the auto industry bailout, although the imperative of addressing economic free-fall and containing two wars taxed a legislature with limited multitasking capabilities, and a Democratic Party beholden to monied interests left a maturing but still rudimentary progressive movement hoping for more change. This year Democrats are again poised to win the presidency in the wake of a meltdown, but this time the meltdown we’re witnessing is taking place in the Republican Party.
An irreconcilable split between the reactionary and conservative factions inhabiting the Republican Party has spilled into the open because of the Trump campaign. For years we have seen tensions between these groups play out in one congressional drama after another, where a small but powerful group of reactionary members withhold their support from budget proposals or raising the debt limit and force conservative congressional leaders to make deals with Democrats to avoid catastrophe. But with Trump at the helm, the conservatives have no leverage in the presidential contest, and they are powerless to prevent Trump from waging a general election campaign geared to the intensely held desires of a base that shares little with the rest of the electorate. They are reduced to stating their intention to vote for the nominee to avoid alienating his supporters while refusing to endorse him to avoid alienating everyone else, while watching their nominee feast like a parasite on the remains of the party in order to nourish his insatiable personal appetites.
The growing Republican split between reactionary and conservative elements has long appeared to be one of the drivers that will eventually reorient our politics. Like a marriage defined by irreconcilable differences, there was a limit Read More
In Next Generation Netroots, Chris Bowers and I argue that our era of zero-sum politics is not sustainable and the country will eventually break free of its present dysfunction. But we are less certain of what might replace it or when things will change. When we completed the manuscript in 2015, Bernie Sanders hadn’t yet surfaced as a movement leader and Donald Trump was firing reality TV participants rather than campaign managers, but the emergence of these two figures as the big surprises of the 2016 campaign is consistent with the two possibilities we imagined for the next political era: an alignment of progressive interests in a renovated Democratic Party or a far-right majority led by the reactionary forces currently swallowing the Republican Party. Although Democrats nominated an icon of the status quo, the Sanders campaign moved the debate in a progressive direction, and Hillary is the nominee of a party defined far more by Bernie’s agenda than her husband’s 90s-era triangulation. At the other end of the spectrum, Donald Trump is proving highly problematic as a general election candidate, but his reactionary politics has blown up what was left of the Republican coalition and threatens to define the party long after the election is over. On the left and right, the forces driving political realignment are advancing as Chris and I envisioned.
The hapless nature of the Trump campaign might suggest the left is winning the struggle over the direction of the country, but that would be a dangerously premature conclusion. Even if Democrats continue their string of assembling winning coalitions in national elections, they still need to figure out how to motivate their voters during the off years if they hope to assemble a lasting governing majority. And they don’t have much time to get this done. In 2018, thirty-six states will elect the governors who will serve in 2020 when the next census is held and legislative lines are re-drawn. This once-in-a-decade event was dominated by Republicans after they swept the Tea Party election of 2010 and Read More
You could feel the nervous tension in the corridors of Wells Fargo Center three weeks ago during the Democratic National Convention. Polls were tight, and although Hillary Clinton held a lead it felt tenuous, or at least too narrow to comfort the professionals invested in seeing her prevail. The general consensus was that her weaknesses would ultimately prove less disqualifying than Trump’s weaknesses and she would find herself on the long end of a close decision in November. But November couldn’t get here quickly enough.
The intervening days have brought relief to the fearful. Democrats navigated a potentially debilitating challenge from angry Sanders supporters and pulled off a successful convention, which generated an appropriately sizable polling bounce. Just as predictably, Donald Trump overreacted to the partisan attacks lobbed at him from Philadelphia and responded with a series of incomprehensible assaults on the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan, kicking off a week in which among other things he undermined the leadership of his own party, booted a crying baby out of a campaign rally, and mused about the assassination of his opponent. Trump succeeded in grabbing back the spotlight from the Democrats but not in the way most presidential candidates would prefer. In politics, unlike on reality television, not all publicity is desirable. Trump’s protracted tirade repelled voters during one of those rare moments when they were paying attention and turned Hillary’s bounce into an inflection point. She now holds a national lead in the high single digits and is far enough ahead with key demographic groups in enough states to claim a dominant position in the horserace.
How dominant? This dominant:
The blue states on the map total 273 electoral votes, three more than needed for victory. Clinton is comfortably ahead in all of them, which means if she holds them she wins the presidency. But her position is stronger than this because of what the map does not display. Florida. Ohio. North Carolina. Nevada. Iowa. Clinton leads in each, and although some of these leads are within the margin of error she could lose them all and still win the election. And she’s competitive in Georgia, Arizona, even Utah and South Carolina. She has many paths to victory. A landslide is not impossible.
The states fortifying Clinton’s advantage are Colorado and Virginia. Solidly Republican for years, Obama won their combined 22 electoral votes in 2008 and 2012 by mobilizing their sizable Latino and African American populations. These states also have a high concentration of educated white voters whose Republican leanings once guaranteed highly competitive and hard Read More