Ever since this presidential campaign began, Hillary Clinton has been the odds-on favorite to win. On paper, she enjoyed all of the advantages. After more than 20 years in the national spotlight, as first lady, a US senator and secretary of state, Clinton had more name recognition and government experience than any of the other candidates. In addition, she could draw upon a huge nationwide network of party leaders and media supporters to promote her impressive credentials, while covering up her glaring shortcomings.
The political pundits recognized that some of more impressive candidates for the Republican nomination would be likely to give Clinton a run for her money. The initial frontrunner, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, also looked like a formidable candidate on paper. Like Clinton, he started out with the support of the national party establishment and major donors and a reputation for policy expertise. There were half a dozen other attractive and well qualified candidates in the large Republican field. Initially, nobody took seriously the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump, a political novice whose credentials as a Republican and a conservative were deeply suspect.
When Trump surprised the experts by eliminating his GOP rivals, one by one, and defied the party establishment by winning the nomination, Democrats quietly rejoiced, confident that he would never be able to compete in the general election against the far more qualified and respectable Hillary Clinton.
Using the same effective strategy employed by Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, the Democrats launched attack ads using the same criticisms of Trump that were used by his Republican opponents. They rejoiced at the prospect that the NeverTrump movement would further divide and weaken the Republicans. The Democrats went through the motions of conducting a real primary contest, but it soon became apparent that the process was always rigged to guarantee Clinton the nomination, with only token opposition.
Democrats were taken aback by the unexpected strength of Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy, reminding them of Clinton’s glaring weaknesses as a candidate. Many of her supporters were also dismayed by Clinton’s error in maintaining a private email server as secretary of state, which she made much worse by getting caught repeatedly lying about it.
RUNNING A MUCH MORE EFFECTIVE CAMPAIGN
Democrats were also surprised by Trump’s resilience as a candidate. Since re-organizing his senior political staff in mid-August, Trump has been running a much more disciplined and effective campaign. Trump apologized for earlier statements which had alienated key voter groups. The gesture also helped to reunite the Republican party behind him.
Instead of getting himself in trouble by speaking off the cuff, Trump has largely stayed on message. He bolstered his credibility by expanding on his earlier proposals to enforce immigration laws, restore prosperity, create new jobs, secure the homeland, win the war against terrorism and revive respect for America in the international community. This has made it more difficult for the Democrats to sell the wild accusations they have made against him, and has enabled Trump to bolster his image with independent voters and some of the Republicans who had been reluctant to support him.
THE DEMOCRAT ELECTORAL COLLEGE ADVANTAGE
Despite these setbacks, the Democrats were still confident of a Clinton victory because of a sizable structural advantage which all recent Democrat presidential candidates have enjoyed in the Electoral College.
Because of changes in the ethnic makeup of the nationwide population over the past three decades, many formerly reliably Republican voting states, such as Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada, have moved into the tossup column, while formerly competitive states, such as Pennsylvania, have become much more reliably Democrat.
As a result, in any given presidential election, Democrats start out with a greater number of Electoral College votes from states they can be confident of winning than the Republicans do. Democrats start out much closer to the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory, and must only take a handful of the remaining dozen or so “battleground states” to win the White House. By contrast, the Republican presidential candidate must take most of the battleground states, especially the two with the most Electoral College votes, Florida and Ohio, to win.
Party trends in national elections tend to remain static and change only gradually over time. As a result, political strategists trying to predict the outcome of the 2016 election look closely at the results in 2012, when President Obama defeated Mitt Romney. Obama won the popular vote by 51% to 47%, but carried the Electoral College by a much larger majority, 332-206, because the Electoral College votes are not awarded proportionately. Even a candidate who wins a state by the narrowest of margins generally gets all of the state’s Electoral College votes.
TRUMP’S SPECIAL APPEAL IN THE RUST BELT
During the Republican primaries, Trump’s criticism of current free trade agreements, such as NAFTA resonated strongly with voters in the industrial rust belt states which have lost millions of jobs to unfair foreign competition. Trump has boasted that he expects to be competitive in these states which generally vote Democrat in presidential elections. The biggest prize among them is Pennsylvania. Its 20 Electoral College votes could put Trump over the top, if he can also win Ohio and Florida and one or two of the smaller battleground states, while holding onto all of the other states Romney won in 2012.
This is why there is as much attention being paid to the polls in these key states as the national polls, which predict the popular vote. While moves in the national polls tend to grab the headlines, the popular vote itself has no real impact on the outcome. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush was declared the winner by the Electoral College even though Al Gore garnered half a million more popular votes.
MOMENTUM IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN A SMALL LEAD
At this stage of the campaign, the direction in which the polls are moving, which is often called momentum, is a more reliable indicator of the state of the race than a small lead for either candidate within the margin of polling error.
In early August, when the Trump campaign stumbled after the Democrat convention, Clinton was able to open 5-7 point lead. This prompted some premature declarations in the media that a Clinton victory was inevitable. But after a month of fresh revelations about Clinton’s deceptions, email server and charitable foundation, her lead in the national polls has effectively evaporated.
Of greater concern to the Democrats is a Trump surge in the critical “battleground states” he must carry to win the election. After trailing Clinton for months, Trump is now leading in Ohio and Florida, and has almost eliminated Clinton’s lead in Nevada and North Carolina. Trump has also opened up a significant lead in Iowa.
Clinton is still holding narrow leads in Colorado and Virginia, and slightly larger leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, but Trump has been narrowing the gap in those states as well.
The latest CBS tracking poll of voter opinion in 13 battleground states, where the outcome of the election will be decided found Trump and Clinton tied with 42% each. The RealClear Politics Electoral College projection still gives Clinton a 200-164 lead, with 174 votes in 14 battleground states rated as a tossup. Trump is clearly within striking distance of victory, especially if Clinton stumbles again. Most Democrats admit that they are no longer as confident of victory as they were just a month ago.
The upcoming Trump-Clinton debates, as well as outside events, such as the flurry of terrorist attacks in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota, will result in further ups and downs in the polls. But it is clear that Trump currently has the momentum, and he has grabbed the initiative on the campaign trail as well.
CAPITALIZING ON CLINTON’S MISTAKES
Under the direction of Kellyanne Conway, who took over the Trump campaign on August 17, it has become far more nimble. It has seized on opportunities, such as the invitation for Trump to meet with the president of Mexico, and avoided the kind of mistakes and verbal excesses that obscured Trump’s powerful message to disaffected voters earlier in the campaign.
Most recently, the Clinton campaign has stumbled by trying to conceal the problems with her health. Clinton also revealed her elitist contempt for Trump’s “deplorable” and “irredeemable” supporters.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “The Democratic nominee’s slander of tens of millions of Americans was part of a deliberate strategy to shame and suppress her opponent’s supporters. That strategy relies on allies in the commanding heights of culture and the media to echo her charges and make it too painful for voters to support Trump in public. . .
“The reason we are seeing this kind of campaign is that the left has done such a terrible job at a practical level that they can’t have a discussion about policies in the real world. They know that if we get into a debate about what’s gone wrong, they will lose.
“So instead of debating, they shout down opponents with ugly accusations.”
Mrs. Clinton’s problems with disclosing the truth about her questionable actions go back to the first months of her husband’s administration. On May 18, 1993, Mrs. Clinton summarily fired all seven of the nonpartisan employees of the White House travel office so that she could give their jobs to her husband’s political supporters, and then lied about her role in the firings when “Travelgate” was revealed to the public.
This set the pattern for Mrs. Clinton’s evasions which continued throughout her husband’s administration, her participation in the cover up of the 2012 terrorist attack on Benghazi, her use of an unauthorized private e-mail server, and most recently, her physical collapse at Ground Zero.
TRUMP’S NEW RALLYING CRY
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has been firing on all cylinders. Using effective new TV ads, it has seized upon Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark as an effective new rallying cry for Trump’s supporters.
Because Clinton has refused to retract or apologize for the remark, it could become a game-changer. It recalls Mitt Romney’s disastrous “47 percent” remark in the 2012 campaign, which Democrats used to unfairly label Romney as a wealthy elitist who looks down upon poor people.
Last week, Trump outwitted the pro-Clinton media by defusing the so-called “birther” controversy with a simple public admission that he now recognizes that President Obama is a U.S. citizen. Trump refused to demean himself by apologizing for raising the issue, as many in the pro-Clinton media had demanded. Trump also reminded the voters that the issue of Obama’s citizenship was first raised by operatives in the Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, although they were careful to preserve deniability for Clinton herself.
CLINTON IS OUT OF IDEAS
Another contrast between the Clinton and Trump campaigns is that Clinton, at this point, has nothing new in the way of policy solutions to offer the large majority of American voters who are disgusted with the federal government and convinced that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. She has publicly committed herself to a continuation of President Obama’s failed policies for a third term.
That is why, instead of trying to defend Obama’s failed foreign policies, for which she, as his secretary of state, is partially responsible, and his progressive agenda for increased regulation and taxes and welfare spending, Clinton and her campaign are spending most of their time and resources on attacking Trump.
OVEREXPOSED ANTI-TRUMP ATTACK ADS
The Clinton campaign and its SuperPAC allies have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a nationwide barrage of negative ads trying to demonize Trump in the eyes of the voters.
In Clinton’s speeches, she puts more time and effort into attacking Trump than in defending her own record or explaining her policy proposals. She has repeatedly called him temperamentally unfit and too dangerous to serve as president. She claims he is ignorant about foreign policy and encourages racism and prejudice among his followers. She has also accused him of unscrupulous business behavior, essentially the same line of attack that Democrats used effectively against Mitt Romney in 2012.
The same accusations against Trump are repeated endlessly in Clinton’s attack ad campaign, which has had little effect on the polls so far, and which now may be growing stale due to overexposure.
CLINTON’S PROBLEMS KEEP GROWING
Meanwhile there has been a steady stream of new problems for Clinton. The flow of Clinton emails continues to reveal new deceptions and the corrupt pay-for-play operations of the Clinton Family Foundation. After the attempt to cover up her collapse at Ground Zero, the public is more suspicious than ever about Clinton’s health, and her effort to demonize Trump’s supporters as bigots has boomeranged by firing up his base.
The difference between the two candidates could hardly be sharper. Even when he is on his best behavior, Trump remains controversial and provocative, while Clinton, at her best, is still boring.
Trump has identified himself closely with his proposals on a few signature issues such as immigration, fighting terrorism and using his business background to create jobs. While Clinton, who prides herself as a policy wonk, has position papers on almost every issue, none of them generates any voter excitement. More than anything else, she is the candidate of the establishment in this election, while Trump promises to serve as the “voice” of frustrated and alienated voters hungry for change. In this year of the political outsider, this clearly gives Trump the advantage in the final weeks of the campaign.
CLOSING THE FUNDRAISING GAP
Trump is also closing the campaign fundraising advantage that Clinton has enjoyed, by raising a record amount of small donor contributions for a Republican presidential candidate. Trump has already raised more than $100 million over the past three months from donors who have given $200 or less, demonstrating the strength of his grass roots support. Trump has been far more effective at generating small contributions than his GOP predecessors, Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008, but is still far behind the record set by Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign which raised $483.6 million in small contributions.
The Clinton campaign has far outspent Trump in advertising and in setting up local ground operations nationwide. The Trump campaign suffered from a lack of funds and a late start, but from now until Election Day, it appears to have sufficient funds to get its message through to the voters.
The outpouring of small donor support for Trump also verifies poll findings that a significantly larger proportion of Trump supporters are strongly motivated to vote than Clinton supporters. Democrats fear that this “enthusiasm gap” could hamper the Clinton campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.
THE THIRD PARTY FACTOR
Clinton is facing other hidden challenges in this campaign. Recent polling has made it clear that the third party candidates in this race, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, are likely to siphon off more votes in crucial battleground states from Clinton than from Trump.
The relatively few votes that go to third party candidates can make a crucial difference in a close race. Many believe that the 97,421 votes that consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader got in Florida as the Green Party’s presidential candidate cost Al Gore the 2000 election. After the controversial Supreme Court ruling halting a recount, George W. Bush was declared the victor in Florida over Gore by a margin of 537 votes. That gave Bush a majority in the Electoral College and thus the White House.
Stein and Johnson have a natural appeal to liberal voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democrat primaries and who still feel that Clinton is untrustworthy and too closely aligned with the big money interests, Wall Street, and the political establishment.
Some Democrats fear that Johnson, who is a former governor of New Mexico, may play a crucial role in the outcome in close races in the battleground states in the West. Even though he will not be in the televised debates, Johnson’s candidacy recently got a boost from endorsements from three major newspapers: the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina, and the Union Leader in New Hampshire.
TRUMP’S OUTREACH TO BLACK VOTERS PAYING OFF
Trump’s outreach effort to black voters, which some political observers criticized as a waste of his time and effort, is starting to bear fruit. A poll taken last week by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California shows that black voter support for Trump has increased from 3.1 percent to 19.6 percent while Clinton’s black support fell from 90.4 percent to 71.4 percent. Even a relatively small swing of black votes towards Trump could be crucial in states like North Carolina, which have large numbers of black voters, and in which Clinton and Trump are running neck and neck.
ADDRESSING THE NEEDS OF WORKING WOMEN
The Trump campaign is also reaching out to another voter segment with which it is lagging in the polls, young married women. They are the target of a proposal developed by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, to provide all working women with six weeks of paid maternity leave, with the benefit to be administered by state unemployment offices.
While questions remain about how the plan would be funded, the Trump proposal neutralizes the Democrats’ argument that Republicans are insensitive to the needs of women.
Hillary Clinton has long identified herself with the political aspirations of female voters, and relied upon them as her base of voter support. But the Sanders campaign revealed that Clinton’s appeal is fading with younger female voters, who see her as just another establishment politician representing the values of an older generation of women.
By proposing a paid maternity leave program of its own, the Trump campaign is making a bid for the support of those young female voters, while demonstrating that it does care about the needs of women, refuting the Democrats’ criticism.
A WINNING ECONOMIC PLAN
In recent weeks, Trump has been emphasizing his ambitious plans for bring prosperity back to the US economy, through tax reform and regulatory relief to unleash the private sector.
In a speech to the New York Economic Club last week, Trump summarized the sad results of the Obama administration’s slow growth policies. Referring to Ford’s announcement that it will be transferring all of its US small car production to plants in Mexico, Trump said, “It used to be cars were made in Flint [Michigan] and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you can’t drink the water in Flint.”
He predicted that his proposal to reduce the business tax rate from 35% to 15% will lead to the creation of 25 million new jobs.
Trump promised to cut back on excessive environmental regulations, create new incentives for business investment, and lift current restrictions on US energy production.
He said his proposal is “the most pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-family plan put forth perhaps in the history of our country.” Its goal is to double the current anemic rate of growth the economy to 3.5% a year on average for the next decade. Trump said he believes that under his plan the U.S. economy could do even better than that, and that the resulting benefits will improve the quality of life for all segments of the US population.
According to Fox Business commentator Charles Gasparino, last week’s economic speech “made his best case yet for his presidential candidacy.” He added that if Trump can “stay focused on the economy” and other substantive issues rather than the insults and false issues created by the Clinton campaign and the mainstream media to divert attention from his strengths, he will have a much better “chance to win in November.”