The speeches have been given and the balloons have fallen. The Democratic and Republican conventions are over and that which has been clear for months is now official: the presidential election will be a race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
With the pageantry of the conventions fading into history, and arguably inconsequence, it is apt to review the ‘State of the Race’™ and have a look at the top stories in the election at August.
Clinton has the advantage
It is roughly two months before the first presidential debate kicks off, and with eight weeks of summer campaigning ahead of us, Hillary Clinton has for the moment reassumed her lead. This is evident in three ways.
Firstly, she’s once again leading national polls. Donald Trump’s post-convention bump hoisted him above Clinton in several polls, but following the Democratic convention Hillary Clinton has seen her own poll bump. The result has been for her to reassert her lead over The Donald, by between 5 to 10 percentage points nationally, while showing leads in virtually all the swing states.
Second, geography is her ally. The path to victory requires 270 electoral college voters, with votes being allocated to the states depending on population size. All states, barring two (Nebraska and Maine) operate a winner-take-all system, pledging all their delegates to the winner of the state-wide vote. The battleground states will be covered in greater depth in later posts, but predictions at this point excluding clear battlegrounds give Hillary Clinton 227 electoral college votes to Donald Trump’s 163.
Third, demographics. Hillary Clinton polls far better with African Americans, hispanics, and millennials than Donald Trump. Plus, most importantly, women: a recent poll gives her a 23% advantage with women. Added to which, she is actually increasing the Democratic advantage with educated voters as compared to Barack Obama in 2012.
As this graph shows, however, Donald Trump is performing very well with white men without a degree. These voters are driving the Trump Train, and are core to his continued viability. At the same time, Trump’s woeful numbers with ethnic minorities potentially gut Republican support in two steadfast conservative states, Georgia and Arizona, where African American and hispanic voters could turn the tide. From Hillary’s point of view, her support base might be wide and diverse, but it is shallower than Trump’s core of voters. Turnout is key for Hillary come November.
Of course, polls must be taken with a pinch of salt, and there are going to be many unseen twists and turns in this election. That said, as of August the advantage is with Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s discipline problem
Donald Trump will not be tamed
‘Let Donald be Donald’ was an early mantra for his outsider candidacy, but at this point it is hurting him. From arguing with Khizr Khan, the father of a dead Muslim marine, to claiming a judge of Mexican heritage could not adjudicate on a Trump University case, Donald Trump refuses to discipline himself.
In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting Donald Trump tweeted that he ‘appreciated the congrats about being right on radical Islamic terrorism’. Just recently he joked about being given a Purple Heart (a military award given to those wounded in combat) by a fan, saying ‘this was much easier’. These incidents are ruining his chances of fully unifying the Republican Party.
Perhaps his crashing poll numbers will force a recalculation in the Trump camp, but this entirely depends on the mindset of Trump himself. If he adjusts his message, one wonders just how much headroom for lift he has nationally.
Struggling for unity, each party is trying to steal the other’s voters
Both conventions saw their fair share of discord. The Republican Party still contains some ‘Never Trump-ers’, and the Democratic Party includes some die-hard Bernie supporters.
This being politics, one party’s loss is another parties’ potential gain. Trump has openly stated that he is going to target Sanders’ anti-free trade voters, particularly in swing states that have experienced industrial decline like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s optimistic speech at the end of her convention welcomed disillusioned moderate conservatives who are feeling alienated from Donald Trump’s brand of demagogic politics. The following few weeks may give an indication of who’s more successfully stealing supporters.
Hacks and the Russian connection
The intelligence agencies strongly suspect that recent hacks into Democratic National Committee emails were conducted by Russian operators. The subsequent release of these emails onto Wikileaks was timed perfectly to rile Sanders’ supporters at the Democratic Convention, and drive a wedge between Hillary’s people and Bernie’s.
It’s in the interest of Moscow to see Donald Trump elected. Trump’s brand of strongman politics validates that of Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s willingness to shy away from established alliances like NATO suggests Putin may have a freer reign to play in his east European backyard, as he has already in Georgia and Crimea.
Though the impact of this round of hacks appears to have been limited, the hacks themselves are unprecedented in American politics. The closest comparison might be the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s, where President Nixon lied about having Republican operatives attempt to steal Democratic files at the Watergate Hotel. This sunk Nixon’s popularity and presidency. However that was an internal affair; if the hacks truly are Russian in origin, this is unprecedented in American democracy, and a worrying sign of political campaigning in the twenty first century.
The forgotten but disruptive third parties
This isn’t just a competition between Republicans and Democrats. Two other parties are also running this year.
The Green Party, headed by Jill Stein, is a progressively left wing protest party that – as expected – takes climate change very seriously. The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, is led by Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico. The Libertarians, again, do what is said on the tin: they fight for getting rid of governmental interference in individual’s lives, and although this might sound like a conservative position, the free-living nature of the Libertarians also draws some of the hippy vote.
Neither the Greens nor the Libertarians are guaranteed a place in the election. Third parties have to earn ballot access in individual states, and these rules vary from state to state. Critics argue that this, and federal funding of political parties, keeps the United States in a two-party system. They would be right.
Polls have tended to run two scenarios: one if it is a two party race, one if it is a four party race. Those same polls tend to show that both Trump and Clinton suffer a little in percentage of the vote under the second scenario, but it looks like it might be doing slightly more damage to Clinton.
So in reality, the Greens and Libertarians are upset-forces. They are never going to win a state outright, but instead will sap support from the two major parties. Donald Trump might lose key swing voters to Gary Johnson in Ohio, or Hillary Clinton might leak Bernie or Bust voters to Stein in Colorado.
Playing it safe, and likeable, with running mates
A quick note on the running mate selections, Mike Pence for Donald Trump and Tim Kaine for Clinton. Neither is particularly riveting.
Pence, the evangelical governor of Indiana, is an olive branch to the religious right on the Republican side, while Tim Kaine, a Senator from Virginia, is a battleground asset and gesture towards religious moderates for the Democrats. Neither were especially exciting choices, though both candidates are deemed respectable and well-liked. Indeed, their sheer likeability was likely a key factor in their selection, given how unpopular both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are among large sections of the American population.
Hillary has much better lieutenants
The national conventions did highlight one immense advantage for Hillary Clinton. With Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, as well as Katy Perry and a host of Hollywood figures, she has far more well known and popular surrogates to campaign for her.
Meanwhile Trump lacks endorsements from 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, his main rival in the primaries Ted Cruz, and the two former Bush presidents. Notable Republicans who have endorsed him have done so in a lukewarm manner, so don’t expect Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to his the campaign trail for Donald.
Trump’s supporters will obviously say that this doesn’t matter: Trump is enough, it’s about him anyway, and he is ‘yuuuge’. Added to which, Hillary herself isn’t an exciting figure and can be easily overshadowed by the Great Communicators: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. However, this handy cadre of lieutenants will be very useful in the depths of October, when Hillary is seeking to maintain a positive presence in multiple swing states simultaneously.
Trump still refuses to release his tax returns
A little note on this, because it really is a big deal: Donald Trump still refuses to release his tax returns.
Every major presidential nominee has done this for decades. Trump’s excuse that he is under audit is a bit wimpy, to be generous. Speculation as to why he hasn’t actually released his tax returns point to four reason:
- He’s not as rich as he says he is
- He gives very little to charity
- He pays very little tax, or is using tax avoidance schemes
- He has unscrupulous investments somewhere
It’s not a hard to dispel these rumours: you simply release your tax returns, like all those who have come before you. Trump’s unyielding defensiveness on the subject suggests he is hiding something.
The impact of terrorism and civil unrest
Republicans are conventionally imagined to be tougher on foreign policy, and have regularly claimed the reputation as ‘law and order’ candidates. Donald Trump is actively pursuing this claim in 2016, and benefits from the the greater Americans feel at risk from threats, both overseas and at home.
Part of the logic is also framed under his portrayal as the ‘change candidate’. Hillary Clinton is tightly associated with Barack Obama, and has embraced this aspect of her campaign. It’s a good calculation: Obama is very close to her when it comes to policy, and are relatively popular figures for swing voters.
However, if terrorist attacks or cop killings continue in 2016 this may become a burden. This sort of violence, though rare, takes on a huge media scope, and perpetuates a feeling that the country actually isn’t on the right course. Trump capitalises on these events to boost his credentials as the candidate who can fundamentally change things in D.C.