When Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, you could almost hear the glee from Camp Clinton. Lambert called the tweets from her supporters “giddy”. The pundits saw Advantage Clinton in her presumed lock on women, blacks, Hispanics, as well as the divide of red versus blue states working in her favor.
Yet the body language sent a different message. Clinton operatives quickly placed calls to big traditional funders known or suspected not to be keen about Trump, timing that looked a tad desperate. And a Clinton-aligned Super-PAC announced a $91 million advertising campaign against Trump, starting now and running through the election. Again, the sense of urgency seemed odd, since swing voters typically don’t tune into elections till after Labor day, and make up their minds in the final weeks.
Today, the tenor of media coverage has shifted. Despite the Clinton campaign having officially bypassed West Virginia, the magnitude of Sanders win is a reminder that Clinton will be forced to keep fighting through the California primary, putting her in the difficult position of having to message to the left so as to be able to win his voters, when she’d really rather be campaigning to the center-right to attract Establishment money and “moderate Republicans.” And given her history of policy flip-flops, opportunistic shifts of position between the primary and general election campaigns will play into the “Crooked Clinton” Trump messaging and the suspicion and anger and distrust among many Sanders voters about dismissive treatment and straw-manning by the Clinton-boosting media and election dirty tricks.
On top of that, a new Quinnipiac poll showed Trump in a “dead heat” with Clinton in three swing states, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A New York Times article a mere six days ago, The Electoral Map Looks Challenging for Trump, that all pegged as being in the Democratic ledger. Even a five point polling improvement by Trump showed Florida and Ohio going over to Trump, but not Pennsylvania. The Times five point gain also showed North Carolina going for Trump. North Carolina was not included in the Quinnipaic poll. But if Trump can win it along with the three states that Quinnipiac listed yesterday as in play, he has an electoral college majority.
The pundits have been too eager to dismiss Trump because he’s transgressive, undisciplined, uses a low-educational-level patter, and is just plain gauche. But the elites and even the top 20% have become so remote from the rest of the country as a result of rising inequality and media fragmentation that people outside of the Acela corridor and the tony enclaves of major cities might as well be from a foreign country. And having done lots of consulting work overseas, the classic mistake of Americans is to reject information that people who aren’t like them have different tastes and act on them. Worse, they tend to assume that The Other will of course come around to liking what they like once they’ve really experienced it (recall how often Campaign Clinton has gone on the barmy assumption that Clinton just needed to be “reintroduced,” when she is already one of the best-known figures in America?).
I confess to having underestimated Trump. I was sure the Republicans would take him out before he got very far. But I had no idea how unappetizing a candidate Jeb Bush was, nor that the party had no credible alternative once his campaign collapsed. Even so, I had also mistakenly assumed (again following conventional wisdom) that Trump would top out at 30% to 35% of the Republican vote. I now know better.
But even with Trump now having established that he’s a real threat, orthodox commentators seem unwilling or unable to see him or his followers clearly. They stereotype them as white male yahoos, when the vote totals alone say his support has to extend beyond rural America. There’s also a tendency to stereotype his base as lower income (as in losers buying into Trump as an aspirational candidate), when surveys are mixed and some suggest that they might be better off than Clinton or Sanders voters. From FiveThirtyEight:
The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.
For Sanders backers, the fact that the media consistently downplays that Sanders has always outpolled Clinton against Trump, often by large margins, is maddening. And it’s made worse by the fact that Clinton’s unfavorable ratings keep rising with more exposure. The Quinnipiac poll found that Clinton’s net unfavorable ratings are now on a par with Trunp’s.
Moreover, Clinton is more exposed to event risk, as in developments that one can foresee as having reasonable odds of taking place and will dent her campaign:
Continued weakening of the economy. Despite all the cheerleading, first quarter GDP numbers were vastly weaker than expected in January, and the latest job figures were far enough below expectations as to put the Fed’s rate increase plan in question. The latest reading from Saudi Arabia is even more of a hawk on keeping oil prices low to (among other things) discipline US frackers. That means another leg down of oil prices is likely, and with that comes more losses of high-paying jobs, more bankruptcies, and more energy loan/junk bond distress. Clinton has firmly tethered her record to Obama’s, so she will be tarred if it decays going into the election.
Market turmoil. Most observers seem to forget that Sanders’ big rise in the polls occurred in the first two months of the year, when global markets and Wall Street nosedived. Clinton is strongly identified with Wall Street, and it going wobbly reminds voters that financiers wrecked the economy for fun and profit and no one was punished. Worse, the lack of real reform means they can do it all over again.
E-mail hairball. Hillary has the FBI investigation as well as private suits in play. The State Department having a “dog ate the files” moment with its former employee, Brian Pagaliano, who also set up her home server, may have a second shoe drop. Even though Clinton cheerily says that she is looking forward to putting this behind, her, the stonewalling with the Judicial Watch suits means the e-mail scandal will still be in the news well into the summer, and potentially into the fall.
Health. Hillary has had at least a mini-stoke and has been having fainting spells since at least 2009, when she broke an elbow. She also appears to have gained a lot of weight and one wonders if that is the result of stress or difficulty managing her medication.
Mind you, Trump has his own set of event risks:
Trump. Trump is his own biggest risk. So far, his gambler’s sense of what he can get away with has paid off, like attacking George Bush over 9/11, a criticism the Republican orthodoxy was convinced would sink him. But he’s also made gaffes that cost him in a serious way and had little upside, like his too-obvious menstrual cycle cheap shot at Megan Kelly and his failure to disavow white supremacist David Duke.
Trump University. The trial is set for the summer and Trump will testify. It’s not going to reflect well on him, and it remains to be seen what if anything Trump can do in testimony or otherwise to limit the damage. But while the Clinton team will be sure to make use of this regardless, it’s likely to get less extended media play than Clinton’s e-mail transgressions.
So even though Americans are on course to be saddled with a lose/lose election, at least it will be an entertaining ride up through the denouement. Stay tuned.