As I commit these words to screen, Nate Silver has Hillary Clinton at 77 percent likely to win the White House. She’s cruising toward 330-plus electoral votes. And as for Donald Trump, they haven’t invented a word for how bad his week has been. And that was before we learned he’s married to an illegal immigrant.
It’s a good week to gloat if you’re a liberal, but gloat weeks are exactly the weeks that make me a little nervous. Three reasons:
First, every week isn’t going to be like this week. Life just doesn’t work that way. Trump will have weeks when he’ll calm down a little. He’ll always be obnoxious, of course, but he won’t always launch gratuitous attacks on the infant-American community. I know we all agree now that Trump can’t help himself. But I continue to suspect that there may come a time when he can help himself, and he’ll spend October comporting himself like Atticus Finch. In addition to this, Clinton will surely have her own bad weeks. She’ll say something off-key, make a big blunder. Maybe someone will find an email from her saying, “Hey, here’s an idea, let’s pay Iran ransom money!” (More seriously, given her generally tough-minded foreign-policy posture, it seems to me just as likely that they’ll find an email in which she raised concerns about paying Iran this 40-year-old debt.) And finally, who knows what Putin is holding back for an October Surprise? I’m not really joking about that, alas.
Second, even with Clinton’s convention bounce and Khan bounce, this thing is still closer than it should be, reflecting the reality that one-third of America thinks she belongs behind bars and a significant portion of the middle third kinda-sorta agrees (the third third, of course, is in Clinton’s corner). And there isn’t much Clinton can do to change that unless she rescues a falling baby or something. In addition, Clinton hatred will really rev up by October, and I assume that the TV ads from the anti-Clinton PACs will be numerous and brutal.
Third, there’s one way at least in which the Trump campaign has finally normalized. It raised more than $80 million in July, almost as much as Clinton. Now, the question is, what in the world is he going to spend it on? He doesn’t really need to buy television ads. He gets 50 of those every day for free.
He should invest it in a ground game, but as Trump would tell us, he knows far more than those get-out-the-vote people, folks, believe me, they’re a disaster. But at least he’s raising it, and it give his campaign one glancing aspect of legitimacy.
No, it’s closer than it ought to be, and it will remain so. So if the Clinton team can’t bust this thing open, which I doubt they can, the fallback question becomes, how do they try to make sure they keep this seven-or-so point lead steady? As the old saying goes, timing is everything.
Timing always matters in politics, obviously—when you trot out a big endorsement, say. But it matters even more against Trump because he is a complete and total creature of the news cycle. He cleared the field in the GOP primary by owning every news cycle. None of them could do anything to take him off his game, get under his skin. Marco Rubio did a little, once he became a stand-up comedian, but he cut and ran shortly thereafter.
I think we’ve learned now, though, that that’s how to beat Trump: get under his skin. Tick him off. Unnerve him. Bait him, goad him, see what he’ll say. Right now, I’ll be watching with interest to see what the Clinton people do with this Melania-immigration story (if you haven’t read it, the gist is that she may have been here in 1995 performing work as a model on a visa that didn’t allow her to work). Hillary should not get into this herself, of course, but some well-chosen surrogate might raise some questions to which Donald feels he just has to respond.
That might be risky—a man defending his wife’s honor is usually a sympathetic figure. But the point is the need to keep Trump off balance. Trump starts talking about national security? Perfect time for Clinton to schedule that Colin Powell endorsement. Trump starts banging on about NAFTA? She should head to upstate New York and have an event at some factory she helped keep from moving to Mexico. The news cycle is this leech’s blood. Remove the blood supply and he perishes.
We like to think campaigns are battles of ideas, and they usually are to a surprising extent. This one isn’t that, since one candidate doesn’t actually have any ideas. He has grudges and resentments and a constant need to be seen as dominating. The ways to beat that candidate are 1) to feed his grudges in the hope that he’ll say something offensive, and 2) just prevent him from dominating. Clinton may never shake completely loose of Trump, but if her team is on the ball, they can try to make sure he never gets up a head of steam.