As Hurricane Matthew tore through parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina on Friday October 8th, a hurricane roiled through the U.S. presidential election of 2016.
Although an undoubtedly tortured metaphor, the revelations of October 8th have the chance to completely change the shape the election. News broke of a tape containing vulgar, sexually aggressive language being used by Donald Trump. Hours later, Wikileaks released emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in an apparent effort to counterbalance the negative press on Trump.
The two incidents vary in their severity, but both are examples of vulnerability attacks: Trump in regard to his misogyny, and Clinton in regard to her closeness with Wall Street.
Here’s a summary of what was said, and the potential impact.
Trump’s Access Hollywood Tape
What was it?
Leaked audio from a 2005 clip of Access Hollywood has Trump talking to host Billy Bush ahead of Mr Trump’s cameo of Days of Our Lives. A mic was hot, and Bush and Trump’s conversation was caught on tape.
Who released it?
It is not clear who released the audio as of yet. Apparently the tape was somewhere in the Access Hollywood files, and leaked to the Washington Post.
What was said?
In a vulgar conversation between the two, Donald Trump made numerous misogynistic and sexually aggressive comments. He discusses approaching a married woman:
“I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”
He then bragged about his stardom enabling his sexual advances:
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
And, in the worst comment, his language becomes sexually aggressive:
“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
What’s the impact?
So far, huge.
Donald Trump has been fighting back accusations of misogyny for months now. Numerous incidents have been discussed concerning his attitude towards, and comments about, women. The particular vulgarity and aggressiveness of his comments are damning, and may constitute a knock-out blow for two key reasons.
Firstly, demographics. Undecided or swing women voters are crucial in this election. Across suburbia in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, Trump has struggled to win over female voters who voted for Mitt Romney. While his core base of support, male and female, will brush off this recording, for the educated women that Trump is targeting, the crassness of his language here may be disqualifying. Added to which, the nature of the comments may well damage his base among evangelical and deeply Christian Americans, who have until this point largely avoided Trump’s nastier remarks about women.
Secondly, the party. Speaker of the House Leader Paul Ryan was finally scheduled to hit the campaign trail with Trump in Wisconsin. Ryan has had a difficult time accepting Trump as the Republican nominee, most notably when Trump declared Judge Curiel was unable to make a fair verdict on a case involving Trump University because he was hispanic. The release of this recording has put a halt to the detente between Trump and Ryan, with the Speaker cancelling joint events, and saying he was ‘sickened’ by Trump’s comments.
Ryan’s distancing himself from Trump mirrors GOP leaders almost across the board. Some Congressmen have called for Trump to step down as nominee (thought not to be possible at this point) and have revoked their endorsements. Of Politico’s Republican insiders, only 54% believed that Trump could overcome these comments, with 46% judging it a ‘knockout blow’.
The electoral map already looked like a steep climb for Trump. If he loses any swing voters, female or otherwise, and sees the Republican Party step away from his candidacy, all amidst deeply negative media coverage, his final month on the campaign trail could be his ugliest yet.
Wikileaks Hack Clinton’s Campaign Chairman
What is it?
The mass hack and release of John Podesta’s emails, the campaign chairman of Secretary Clinton. The emails pertain of Clinton’s campaign, and make reference to her speeches to Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs.
Who released it?
Wikileaks, although the precise identity of the hacker is unknown. U.S. government security officials are making stronger claims that Russia is closely tied with Assange’s Wikileaks, and that the online persona of Guccifer 2.0 is related to Russian state hackers.
What was said?
A whole host of emails were hacked. The most revealing ones relate to Podesta and senior campaign personnel discussing the potential damage of Clinton’s Wall Street speeches. In one speech, Clinton discussed feeling distanced from middle class America:
“My father loved to complain about big business and big government, but we had a solid middle class upbringing. We had good public schools. We had accessible health care. We had our little, you know, one-family house that, you know, he saved up his money, didn’t believe in mortgages. So I lived that. And now, obviously, I’m kind of far removed because the life I’ve lived and the economic, you know, fortunes that my husband and I now enjoy, but I haven’t forgotten it.”
During some of the emails, there are also references that Clinton believed the people best equipped to handle regulation of Wall Street are those with experience of how the financial systems work. The emails also contain discussion of how to respond to attacks on the campaign, including the release of ‘Clinton Cash’, a smear-job book designed to damage her reputation:
“The biggest question for this group is if and how HRC engages on Clinton Cash this week and what are the ‘two lines’ she would deliver,”
In a more disarming comment, senior campaign execs discuss ways of making light of Clinton’s lengthy hearing at the Benghazi Committee, with Bill Clinton suggesting:
“Wishing after hour 8 that Bernie would come through the door with his ‘damn email’ line.”
Perhaps the most damaging quote was from a speech given to a Brazilian bank in 2013, regarding trade:
“My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future with energy that is as green and sustainable as we can get it, powering growth and opportunity for every person in the hemisphere.”
Although in the same speech, Clinton called for the US to have “a concerted plan to increase trade already under the current circumstances.”
What’s the impact?
Hard to say, but not too significant at the moment.
For the most part, despite the scale of the hack, the emails are relatively benign. They concern the day-to-day inner workings of political campaigning, and in fact are often more of an interesting insight than juicy revelation.
Even when it comes to her admitting a level of distance from the middle class, Clinton is expressing remorse over this issue, instead of revelling in her wealth. The more damaging content is probably regarding the trade issue, although again her language is couched in the positive effects of international trade, and indicates her awareness of the challenges facing America in a free trade environment.
The difficulty will be with younger voters, for whom the vague, murky sense of allegiance between Clinton and Wall Street is troubling. Thus far, there has been no smoking gun or terrible quote from a speech to slam Clinton, but the simple linkage between the Democratic nominee and Wall Street banks is enough to disaffect millenials and young progressives. Damage control might involve Clinton working closer with Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail, to assuage young voters’ fears.
The broader significance may well lie in the hack itself. It is unlikely that the identify of Guccifer 2.0 will become apparent before November 8th, but the growing claims of Russian state involvement in America’s presidential election should be causing alarm among American voters, particularly when it is being conducted on such a partisan basis. If Russia is involved in hacking Clinton’s campaign, with Putin known to be hostile to a Clinton presidency that supports international human rights and freedom of speech, and would check Russian expansionism in Europe and Central Asia, then this is an utterly unprecedented turn in political campaigning during the digital age.
The False Equivalency Problem
Throughout this campaign, the Clinton camp have fumed over the false equivalency issue. In short, if Trump can point to one or two controversial aspects of Secretary Clinton’s record, then it is all too easy for disillusioned voters (and there’s a lot of them) to resort to “well, it’s a choice between two bad candidates” tropes.
To an extent, they are two flawed candidates. Clinton is not perfect, but no candidate ever is.
As a side note, young voters may ache for Bernie Sanders, but this raises other problems. Sanders performed poorly with African Americans and middle class whites. Added to which, it would be all too easy for Trump to hammer Sanders on national security issues, on which Sanders’ vaguely pacificst position does not play well in swing states. So while Bernie might have galvanised younger voters and liberals, his selection would potentially have been at the sacrifice of swing voters in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.
The problem is, for those Americans who do not follow the election closely, and are primarily working off perception of the candidates, Wikileaks’ timing of their release will allow some voters who are tired of this election to continue to think it’s a choice between two terrible candidates. Only time will tell which bombshell does the most damage.