Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Two months to go: It's Trump's to lose

Two months to go: It's Trump's to lose

Yes, you read that correctly.

Among the political cognoscenti a tendency has emerged to discuss a 'post-Trump United States', as if the election is already over and a Clinton presidency is a forgone conclusion. This sentiment, while partly a self-protecting delusion, at least has a defendable narrative. After all, until very recently Trump has been way behind in the polls. The month to mid-August was the very worst of Trump's whole campaign, starting with his incomprehensible attack on a Gold Star family and concluding with the resignation of his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Now, exactly two months out from the election, it's time to examine the state of play. Despite the avalanche of media reports to the contrary, the fundamentals do not augur well for a Clinton presidency. Here's why:

(1) The polls

A new CNN poll has Trump leading Clinton by 2% nationwide. That's within the margin of error but it's also a startling 12-point turnaround on the previous month.

But the real story lies buried within the headline figures.

First, on the two issues that matter most to voters this election cycle – the economy and national security – Trump retains a healthy advantage. This has been constant, true even when the polls showed Clinton with a dominating lead. This means that Trump's problems are own-goals and questions of temperament, rather than about whose vision most appeals to voters. In other words, Trump's electoral vulnerability is a variable within his control – himself.

Second, contrary to what is commonly believed, the demographics favour Trump. Yes, non-whites favour Clinton by an eye watering margin (71% to 18%), but more important is the age and gender split. As is known, men strongly favour Trump while female voters firmly back Clinton. However, Trump is leading among married women by a full 17 points (53% to 36%). Of course, this is more than made up by unmarried women who support Clinton by a gigantic margin (73% favour Clinton). The problem for Clinton here is that the unmarried cohort is far younger and overwhelmingly backed Sanders during the primary.

There's good reason to doubt that these former Sanders supporters will turn out on election day. Overlooked is the fact that, unlike Trump, Sanders did not create his movement within the Democratic party. Rather, the movement was already there, and when Elizabeth Warren failed to run Sanders merely strapped a harness to it. It's small wonder then that Sanders was booed at the DNC when he endorsed Clinton while espousing the virtues of pragmatic incrementalism; he was no longer speaking for this left energetic base.

So while young unmarried women may detest Trump and preference Clinton in opinion polls, turnout among this cohort is going to be massively depressed. This is reflected in the numbers. Clinton supporters are less enthusiastic about voting this time than in previous elections while Trump's supporters are more excited. Overall, a mere 46% of the American electorate are enthusiastic about voting in this election, as compared with 57% at this time in 2012, and 64% in 2008. Meanwhile, Trump has a massive 20-point lead among independents (49% to 29%), meaning that swing voters and those deciding to vote for the first time are strongly favouring Trump.

Those arguing Clinton is still well ahead point to polling in the battleground states. While state polls are needed to confirm the recent shift toward Trump,  so far they have trended closely with national polls. Clinton probably won't lose the popular vote but then win the electoral colleges, indeed the reverse seems more likely. [fold]

In sum, Trump's support is enthusiastic, politically engaged, and expanding. Clinton's support is depressed, and strongest among groups that don't generally vote and are even less likely to than normal this time around.

(2) Scrutiny on Clinton

Hitherto, every time Trump has started to calm nerves, show restraint, and looked to be taking the fight to Clinton he's fumbled it with a new unforced error. In recent weeks, however, Trump appears to have learned the harsh lessons of his campaign. Specifically, he's reduced his ad-libbing and embraced the teleprompter he long scorned.

Meanwhile, for the first time since winning the nomination, the media focus is on Hillary Clinton. The FBI's most recent disclosure has given her opponents powerful ammunition, including (but hardly limited to) the revelation that Clinton wiped her personal email servers after receiving a Congressional subpoena, contrary to her previous evidence.
Now is the worst possible time for Clinton to be on the defensive. Her campaign has never effectively combated the perception of Clinton as dishonest and corrupt. Instead, she's hidden from the media giving (perhaps) one press conference in 275 days. And yet, having little recent practice, her biggest media test is now imminent.

(3) The debates

The first of three presidential debates will go to air in a little over two weeks' time. These debates may prove to be the most viewed political spectacles in history, potentially smashing the 80 million strong audience of the 1980 Reagan-Carter debate. The importance of this showdown can hardly be overstated; whomever wins the debates in 2016 will be the next president of the United States.

Trump has proven himself a very effective debater, while Clinton does not perform well on her feet. Clinton may have an advantage when it comes to describing policy detail, but the winner is the candidate who best channels audience sentiment. Reagan's 'there you go again' line was policy content free.

It's easy to imagine Clinton's coaching in preparation for these debates. She will be focused on presenting a small target, sounding deliberate, and showing presidential-like stoicism while deflecting Trump's attacks. In other words, Clinton's goal will be to win by not losing.

This was a fine strategy when Clinton had a dominating lead in the polls, and when the pressure was on Trump to find a game-changing moment. But when the polls are tightening and the spotlight is on Clinton's weaknesses, this a recipe for disaster.

Now is the most critical time. If, over the next fortnight, Trump falls back into his cyclical habit of making his own temperament the issue he'll absolutely lose in November. If, however, Trump maintains his discipline then the polls will continue to converge, momentum will be with his campaign, and he'll enjoy crushing personal advantages heading into the debates.

In sum:  the determinant here is Trump. That's why it's his election to lose. 

Photo: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

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