Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Labor Day reckoning: Soon it will be time to choose

Labor Day reckoning: Soon it will be time to choose

The nightly Olympic Games distraction is over.

The hamburgers and macaroni salad are on order for the Labor Day weekend cookout.

Soon, the old school political scientists tell us, it will be time for undecided American voters to really tune in to the presidential campaigns and weigh the issues.

The problem is that undecided voters are an endangered species as American politics sorts itself into two camps: anti-Trump and anti-Clinton. It’s a telling sign of the American malaise that the choice of presidential candidates boils down to two wildly disliked and distrusted individuals.

And issues? Both candidates are painting with a broad brush.

Hillary Clinton will try to take away guns and appoint judges who will move the Supreme Court to the left, Trump backers say.

Donald Trump will deport millions of undocumented residents, alienate allies and make America less safe by threatening to use nuclear weapons, Clinton backers say.

Her lingering e-mail mess threatens to produce a campaign-changing surprise at any moment. Mitigating factors are that anti-Clinton forces – both Democrats and Republicans – have been picking through them for months without finding the proverbial smoking gun. And how exactly would Trump explain a compromising classified email without breaking the law himself?

Beyond that, Clinton's quarter-century on the national stage have left all sorts of love/hate matters for voters. Is the Clinton Foundation an effective global charity or a political dodge to benefit the Clintons? As Obamacare struggles to meet its promises, its foes recall the failed HillaryCare initiative of the ‘90s. What should voters make of her support from unions, from minority communities and from the coastal elites? 

Trump's campaign is beset by questions about his finances. By refusing to reveal his tax returns – for decades, every candidate has released these forms – he has left himself open to speculation that something is amiss.  The lawsuits surrounding his Trump University threaten to drop a bombshell into the campaign season. But his lawyers are top shelf and the already slow American judicial system can be brought to a standstill by good lawyers.

His litany of using bankruptcy law to build his empire is either a sign of skilful management of the rules of capitalism or the work of a con man. His provocative speeches are either a willingness to move beyond political correctness or hate-speech that serves as a clarion call to bigots. His attacks on the media are either well deserved bashing of a leftist elite or a desperate attempt to find a scapegoat for his many gaffes.

Love 'em or hate 'em, politics boils down to 'compared to what?' [fold]

There are other candidates in the race, people like Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico; and Green Party flag-bearer Jill Stein, a physician who is a frequent candidate but never a winner at anything bigger than a town board contest.

But it seems unlikely either will have the kind of bearing on the race that Ralph Nader had in 2000. Then, the consumer advocate’s Green Party candidacy likely tipped Florida – and thus the whole election – to George W Bush. 

The key element here is the Electoral College, the uniquely American mix of concepts akin to Britain’s Commons and Lords.  Each state has the same number of votes as it has members of Congress. That makes 538 the total number of electors and 270 the magic number for candidates.

There are lots of national polls available but none really matters. The ones that matter are the state polls which roll up into Electoral College votes and figure in the calculus of reaching 270.

Former Bernie Sanders supporters are slowly coming back to Clinton as their only viable choice. And a particularly bad run by Trump in early August produced a shakeout of some of his supporters. The key was the dustup with Trump doubling down on his public criticism of a Muslim family whose son, a soldier, was killed in Afghanistan. 'Mr. Trump has alienated his party and he isn’t running a competent campaign', the conservative Wall Street Journal declared in an editorial.

The result were some high-profile calculations that the race is effectively over already. In the last few weeks however Trump has made some headway. He is still behind by a still considerable margin but that margin has shrunk as we head into the last couple of months of campaigning.

The easiest way to follow the race from afar is by tracking two websites.

The first is that produces a highly-regarded poll tracking system that monitors both national and state polls. It then applies that data to the Electoral College map. As of writing, it has  262  Electoral College votes in Clinton’s column with another 122 rated as 'toss up'. The other 154 are in Trump’s column.

The second is, run by Nate Silver, the former New York Times polling guru who has been nailing outcomes for years. His site goes so far as to grade the polls and apply a proprietary algorithm before laying the results on the electoral map.

Today, Silver puts Clinton's chance of being the next president at 73.8%, finishing up with 320 Electoral College votes.

When Americans head back to work on Tuesday, there will be nine weeks on the clock till Election Day. We can expect the rhetoric will become more heated, more shrill, more personal. But will it move the meter?

Some commentators believe it's impossible for Trump to win from here. Others aren't ruling anything out. For those of you outside of the US, keeping an eye on the two sites listed might provide some reassurance Americans are not about to make a radical change in course.

 Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

You may also be interested in