What did you accomplish this past week? Whatever it is, you don’t come close to Donald Trump. Trump has demolished his campaign, his brand and his party. He has squandered his vice-presidential pick and his convention, and several battleground states along with them. He picked several fights he could not win, and showed no sign of learning from his own failure. It would be tempting to say this was just another week in the bizarre life of the Republican presidential nominee.
But it wasn’t. This week was a decisive turning point in the 2016 election, and there have been remarkably few of them in an campaign that is supposedly volatile. In fact, the volatility and unpredictability of this election doesn’t come from polls or votes, but from the character of a single man: Donald J. Trump. The real surprise of 2016 is how constant this contest has been.
Trump led the primary polls from the beginning and never lost his lead. He only surprised the chattering classes by defying their certainty that he would lose. That certainty was founded on nothing related to polling data, but rather their sheer disgust and disbelief with Trump’s politics. Having defied expectations once, Trump is now supposed to be able to defy polling gravity forever more.
That would be a strange conclusion to draw from the primaries, but here we are. Echoing the Trump campaign, Fox News anchor Greta van Susteren distilled this position last Thursday, as she quizzed the poll-obsessed Karl Rove. “I see the rallies and they’re big, and I see the poll numbers, and he’s slipping in the polls,” she said. “I’m not so sure how accurate these polls are.”
Rove — the man who challenged the Fox News election desk as it called the 2012 election for Obama — was incredulous. “You’re assuming first of all, the polls are not reliable — all of them — and second of all, that a better test of this is the size of the crowds he gets at his rallies, which are big and enthusiastic. But I would remind you in the closing days in the 1984 presidential campaign, Walter Mondale was drawing large and enthusiastic rallies as he went on to narrowly win one state.”
To put it delicately, this is a difficult moment in the education of Trump. For a candidate who leads every stump speech bragging about his poll numbers, there is less and less material every day. Ergo the polls — just like the media, Clinton and democracy itself — must be crooked.
It would be nice to call this a logical fallacy, but those are two words that should never be placed within physical proximity of Trump. “I see some great polls,” he told a rally in Virginia last Tuesday. “I see one from the Los Angeles Times, just came out, where we’re ahead by four or five points. I see one from CNN where we’re down. I think these polls, I don’t know. There’s something about these polls. There’s something phoney.” That was the day after he told voters there was an even bigger problem with this confounding election. “I’m afraid the election’s going to be rigged,” he told voters in Ohio. “I have to be honest.”
Those who live in the reality-based world are having an easier time understanding Trump’s challenges. The simpler explanation is that he is losing because of his own performance and personality. As the saying goes, campaigns are like fish: they rot from the head down. This one stinks already and it’s only the start of August. Barack Obama put it more diplomatically at his pre-vacation press conference. “If Mr Trump is up 10 or 15 points on election day and he ends up losing, then, you know, maybe he can raise some questions,” Obama ventured. “That doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.”
The lessons of history
No, it doesn’t. In any campaign cycle, there are periods when the dynamic turns decisively in one direction. While the dynamic can shift more than once, as the cycle runs its course there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so. George H.W. Bush engineered one of those shifts after his 1988 convention, turning a 17-point deficit into an eight-point lead, backed up by devastating TV ads. Bill Clinton enjoyed one of those shifts in 1992 when Ross Perot initially dropped out of the race, and Clinton never really lost his lead again.
In 2004, John Kerry staged a decent convention and held a narrow lead, but was soon destroyed by a better Republican convention and the swift-boat attacks that followed. Four years later, Obama didn’t bury John McCain until the financial collapse that followed both conventions.
How does the past week of 2016 compare to those history-making moments in recent presidential history? Pretty favourably. Trump miserably misjudged his dispute with the Gold Star parents of a fallen American soldier, Humayun Khan, who was Muslim. He drove a wedge between himself and the few Republican leaders who publicly tolerated his nomination. And he seriously undermined his own brand of patriotic nationalism, as well as his party’s reputation for strength on national security. The lasting impact of Trump’s disastrous week came from its echoes of the Democratic convention.
Each round of dispute with the Khan family only served to reinforce the criticism that he had sacrificed nothing. Each bone-headed response underscored Hillary Clinton’s attack on his temperament and qualifications to serve as commander-in-chief.
In the middle of his own circular firing squad, Trump decided to shoot at the one unifying Republican who has politely ignored his insanity: House speaker Paul Ryan. Trump’s support for Ryan’s primary opponent was — like the construction of so many hideous Trump Towers — wholly unnecessary. Ryan’s response was to send out a fund-raising email assuming Trump had already blown this election.
“If we fail to protect our majority in Congress, we could be handing President Hillary Clinton a blank cheque,” the fund-raiser said, echoing the congressional Republican party’s abandonment of Bob Dole in the closing weeks of the 1996 election. Of course, these aren’t the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign.
Trump could yet turn around his national polling deficit of up to 14 points. He could flip the polls in Florida (down four), Michigan (down nine), Pennsylvania (down 13) and New Hampshire (down 15). He could turn Georgia and Utah back into reliably Republican states again, instead of being dead-heat states. But Trump only has one shot left to do that: the TV debates that start in another seven weeks. At the same time, history suggests that post-convention polling is remarkably stable stretching all the way into the final days of an election. It’s going to be a long, hot summer for the orange one.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Richard Wolffe is chief digital and marketing officer at Global Citizen, a non-profit organisation dedicated to ending extreme poverty. He is the author of Renegade: The Making of a President, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House and The Message: The Re-Selling of President Obama.