Polls tightening as Trump softens
Awakened by 8-10% deficits in national polls and weakness in Republican heartlands like Arizona and Georgia, the Trump campaign has changed strategy and finally tacked, albeit only slightly, to a less extreme message.
The shake up was felt at a campaign leadership level. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort exited, embroiled by rumours of money he received while working for a pro-Russian Ukrainian premier. The new hires were noted pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager and former head of Breitbart News, a far right wing media outlet, Stephen Bannon as campaign CEO.
On the campaign trail, Trump has stayed on message, peppering this message with symbolic outreach to ethnic minorities and those unconvinced of his brand of brash populism.
The result of this inevitable stagger to the political centre: Trump is now only roughly 3-5% behind Clinton in national polls, and has regained vital ground in swing states, particularly Florida and North Carolina where the candidates are in a dead heat.
Once again, Trump has been effortlessly aided by a media cycle fascinated with his candidacy. Even when news stories in August were negative, the spotlight has remained on Trump, preparing a national platform for piecemeal redemption.
This is a real surge for Donald Trump, and when combined with the gentle fading of Clinton’s post-Convention bounce, this race is still up in the air.
Hillary’s health and emails continue to distract
The revelation that Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with a form of pneumonia after having to step away from a 9/11 memorial is yet another distraction for a campaign eager to focus on their candidates strength of knowledge around policy and preparedness.
It seems controversy is destined to plague the Clintons. Throughout August her critics continued to berate Hillary for her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. To make matters worse, a new line of attack matured concerning ‘pay for play’ mechanics with the Clinton Foundation.
Opponents argue that donors to the international development organisation were granted special access during Clinton’s time as head of the State Department, an allegation the candidate strongly refutes. Whether valid or not, the new controversy ensured that the Clinton camp continued to appear defensive to outside scrutiny.
The health scare of early September worsens an already damaged image of trust in Hillary Clinton.While voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida may not explicitly be deterred by any of these single issues, taken together they are powerful ammunition for her opponents to categorise her as untrustworthy.
What’s worse is that old controversies, like the email server, continue to dog her campaign, despite being in the national discussion for over a year now. At the recent ‘Commander-in-Chief Forum’, a town hall-esque televised event focused on national security and foreign policy, Hillary Clinton lost almost a third of her time to explaining and defending herself on the emails question. That time could have been far better used to demonstrate her understanding of complex international issues in comparison to her lesser prepared opponent.
Trump starts flip flopping on immigration
In a single day, Donald Trump flew to meet with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, and then gave a hardline, anti immigrant speech in Pheonix, Arizona. The imagery of his candidacy was all over the place, but reflects the power of his evasiveness on this and other issues.
Whether the Mexican trip itself was a success is debatable. Critics argue that it was a clear failure, given it resulted in contradictory statements and confusion over payment of a potential border wall. Not to mention the fact that Mexican president Nieto faced a flurry of domestic criticism for hosting a candidate he had previously likened to Hitler.
However, the sheer brazenness of dedicating half a day to appearing more moderate on immigration and Mexico, and the other half to his conventional nativist, xenophobic position points to the singular unaccountability Trump is enjoying.
Added to which, Trump is now backtracking on some of his proposals in order to appeal to moderate voters. He has walked back his plan to deport all illegal immigrants, instead focusing on criminals, in a position that sounds eerily like that of President Obama. This earned Trump the ire of noted conservative commentator Ann Coulter, author of ‘In Trump We Trust’, who raged on Twitter against Trump’s recent flip flops on immigration. No matter; Trump will give a fiery, xenophobic rant the next day, enough to sate his core, hardline support base.
Pinning Donald Trump down on what exactly he would do with regard to immigration is all but impossible at the moment. So far it doesn’t seem to matter.
Democrats encouraged by the electoral college map
It might seem like a gloomy month for the Clinton camp, but her supporters continue to be reassured by the shape of the electoral map.
Below is a pessimistic outlook for Hillary Clinton:
The grey states are where the polls show the contest is within 5% between the candidates, on an average of polls.
The key fact of this diagram is that, given the areas of strength for Hillary Clinton, she is already past the magic number of 270 based on this current state of play. Of course, this map is in no way set in stone, but at the moment her strength in the Midwest and the coasts is putting her in a fairly favourable position.
Or, to put a finer point on it, if Trump were to win the key swing states of Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, while also fending off weakness in Republican states Arizona and Georgia (where his lead is 1-2% as of mid September), he would still lose.
It’s far from over, and the talk of Clinton landslides only a few weeks ago now feel painfully outdated. Donald Trump can win the presidency; most forecasts currently put it around a 30% chance.
Then again, anything can happen in 2016.
Race makes a return
Part of Trump’s moderating tactic has been to make an appeal to African Americans. His pitch has been ‘what the hell do you have to lose’, seemingly showing empathy by claiming the African American community are suffering from high (though inflated) unemployment figures, poor schools, and gun violence.
Donald Trump has not made any practical or detailed proposals for how to change any of this. That doesn’t matter: his pitch to black voters wasn’t made for black voters. Indeed, at the events where Trump made his appeals his audience was almost all white.
Trump is attempting to present a friendlier image for suburban, affluent and educated white Americans, for whom the term ‘racist’ creeps far too close mind when considering Trump. Any votes from the actual minorities he is discussing would be a pleasant bonus.
He claims that the Democratic platform of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has locked ethnic minority communities into dependency and poverty. The rebuke from the left has been swift and sharp, with noted civil rights campaigner Al Sharton taking to CNN to lambast the cynical tactics of Donald Trump.
Donald Trump may double down on this strategy and make it a focal point during the debates, reasoning that if he can be shown to be at least talking about racial injustice – even if he doesn’t say anything of content – then he might win over moderate white Americans.
Debates figure to be decisive
The first presidential debate is to be held on September 26th.
Who will be participating? The commission on presidential debates announced this month that the old policy stands: only candidates with at least 15% support in minimum five national polls will have a spot in the debates.
That would not give Gary Johnson, candidate of the Libertarian Party, a spot. He currently polls at around 8-9% nationally, and time is running out to make a surge in awareness and support. Green Party candidate Jill Stein fares even worse, at a measly 3% nationally.
So it looks like the debate will be a one-on-one bout between Clinton and Trump. The Unlikeability Bowl, if you will. Given the relative tightening of the race in recent weeks, the debates are set to be crucial turning point in this election, with news outlets expecting record high viewing figures.
Both Trump and Clinton have been preparing for the debates for some time now. In light of the Trump campaign’s recent reorientation, one wonders how aggressive and mocking the Republican candidate will be on this national stage. Returning to his attacking style, and hyper negative messaging might lose him the gains he apparently has made with some moderate, and educated white voters. However, if he attempts to appear ‘presidential’, he could easily be outshone and schooled by the experienced and poised Hillary Clinton.
The downside for Clinton? Expectations for Donald Trump are incredibly low. If he debates without committing any major gaffe and says several relatively sensible things, it will likely be seen as a success.