The Briefing

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 42-

This week: 

  • Trump’s travails
  • McMullin might have a better chance of winning a state than Gary Johnson
  • Will the House flip?

President 2016

Trump’s tough week, part 2: Whatever you choose to believe about the new sexual allegations against Donald Trump, the electorate has some pretty lopsided opinions about the matter.

According to the newest ABC/Washington Post poll, 68 percent believe that “Trump probably has made unwanted sexual advances toward women.”

Now, the way this question is worded is not quite the same as asking whether he’s groped or sexually assaulted anyone, which is what his accusers say and what he boasted about to Billy Bush in the now-infamous taped conversation from more than a decade ago. But the fact that voters believe this in such great numbers really doesn’t help him. Nor does the fact that 57 percent believe his apology is not sincere. Even if you want to fudge the numbers a bit to account for potential liberal bias, those numbers are huge.

Still, what’s amazing is that this very poll, with these findings, has Trump down only four points among likely voters, 47 to 43 percent in an open race and 50 to 46 percent in a head to head with Clinton only.

That other polls (such as the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll) show a larger gap is irrelevant here: The fact that the poll’s topline could be so close, despite the other answers the respondents gave, says quite a bit about where the American electorate is right now.

Ever since 2000, the modern hyper-partisan electorate has been the baseline reality of American politics. The red states, blue states and swing states have seemed well defined, as has the certainty that the parties are relatively close to one another in terms of number of voters. That relative parity survived even the decisive Obama victory of 2008. And today, the hard partisanship of a divided electorate endures even under the current circumstances.

Third Party: One possible exception to this is Utah, where resident (and Mormon) Evan McMullin now polls at 22 percent and just four points behind Trump and Clinton, who are tied at only 26 percent. Given the LDS church’s strong community ties in Utah, a McMullin victory there is by no means unlikely. But outside the LDS stronghold of Utah (and possibly Idaho, although there’s no polling evidence of a McMullin surge there yet), McMullin is just destined to be a protest vote and perhaps a historical curiosity. Also, note that he’s only on the ballot in 11 states.

When it comes to Gary Johnson, it’s quite another story. By all accounts, the Libertarian Party, whose nominee will appear on all ballots nationwide, is in the midst of experiencing the greatest missed opportunity in its 45-year history.

With two hugely unpopular major-party candidates, Johnson seemed to be in a good position on paper. In his best polls, he seemed to draw voters almost evenly from Clinton and Trump.

Yet in the real world, he’s never drawn nearly enough. One reason he hasn’t caught on with Republicans is that he isn’t a suitable candidate to attract the very sort of Republican voter who is at this moment most uncertain about Trump — the Christian social conservative. And the thing is, there is no shortage of libertarians (people like Austin Petersen and Rep. Justin Amash) who could fit the bill as a libertarian attractive to social conservatives.

Johnson is of course pro-choice on abortion, but that’s not his only problem. He probably could have overcome that by making the argument that pro-lifers might like the judges he’d appoint, and that his deepest desire is (true to the libertarian creed) to leave them alone. Unfortunately, he took the extra step near the start of his run to make clear that he doesn’t have much regard for religious liberty in the law, and that’s a problem. For the millions of evangelical and conservative Catholic voters who might have turned to him as a potential alternative, this might have been fatal. It meant Johnson could never rise above being a protest vote.

But Johnson is still quite popular, it should be noted, among young people, who are the least likely to vote and will probably turn out for this election in much smaller numbers than they did when Barack Obama was on the ballot.

Johnson’s popularity with the younger set, though, could hint at either a Libertarian Party second chance in some future election (far less likely) or else a brighter future for a Republican Party that embraces more libertarian ideals in the future (think of something resembling Amash or Rand Paul). Young people aren’t necessarily owned by the Left, but they’re quite sour on the GOP and its current nominee.

House 2016

Will the House flip? We’ve looked at the Senate several times, and Republicans have less than even odds of keeping it at this point. But what about the House? 

All predictions of a Trumpocalypse aside, Democrats do not seem to have made the progress they would need on the generic ballot question to take control of the House of representatives. Nor does the picture look bright for them when the problem is viewed district-by-district.

The Dems’ current three-point lead among likely voters on the generic ballot (in the Washington Post poll) actually compares to some past Republican House victories, and the numbers in that poll have basically not changed from the margin of error since May, when the parties were tied. The NBC/WSJ poll showed a six-point lead earlier this month, but most recently showed a two-point lead — again within the poll’s three-point margin of error.

None of this points to a Democratic takeover of the House. The last time Dems took over the House, in the 2006 wave election, Democrats led in various firms’ generic ballot polls by as much as 19 points in late October, and had posted leads greater than 20 points prior to this point. That hasn’t been happening this year.

Bear in mind that even a larger lead in this indicator won’t help too much if Democrats’ marginal advantage is concentrated in heavily Democratic areas. Given that such a concentration is the likely result of of Democrats’ presidential turnout strategy (Clinton’s most efficient means of driving turnout is to press her advantage with black voters in dense urban areas), there is again no reason to believe Democrats can pull this off — at least not yet.

District-by-district: The bigger problem Democrats face is that so few of the House races are competitive this year, and they failed to recruit adequate candidates for some of the ones that should be. They need a net gain of 30 seats (not counting two vacant but heavily Democratic seats they will easily win) in order to get a House majority. And the Cook Political Report, for example, considers only 33 Republican-held seats to be either “Lean Republican” or worse for the GOP, with one Democratic seat almost certain to go to the GOP due to redistricting in Florida.

This would mean that if Democrats go 33 for 33 in picking these up, for a net gain of 32 seats, they would just barely make it. And that isn’t so easy, because it involves winning some pretty tough seats, including a number where we know Democratic candidates aren’t polling well.

House polling has been unfortunately sparse this year, as often happens in presidential years. But there are a few examples we can look at. Cook considers all of the following Republican incumbents to be in the “lean” category, for example. And that’s reasonable based on the fundamentals of the districts, but recent polling by reputable firms (in parentheses) suggests these aren’t going to be easy pickups:

#NY01: Rep. Lee Zeldin (up 15 via Siena)

#IA03: Rep. David Young (up 10 via Loras)

#ME02: Rep. Bruce Poliquin (up 10 via UNH), whose district Trump is likely to carry.

#NY24: Rep. John Katko (up 19 via Siena)

The same could be said (although the polling isn’t as recent) for the seat of Rep. Mia Love, R, in Utah. Even Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, who makes Cook’s “toss-up” category, boasted a reasonably healthy lead (7 points) in one recent Loras poll. And in a number of other cases, there’s no data (or no reliable data) at all.

Which is just to say, Democrats have several easier targets in the House this year and will knock off some of them, but they will have to start winning races of this caliber in order to take the House outright. Not impossible, but quite a tall order.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 41-

This week:

  • Trump steps it up in second debate
  • Groping comments won’t go away easily
  • Evan Bayh makes a hell of a lot more money than you do

President 2016

Second debate: Trump won the second debate. Not all polls confirm this, but in terms of the debate itself, he just did. (More on the context of the debate below.)

You can chalk it up to low expectations, or to the fact that Hillary Clinton is such a terrible candidate, which she really is. But that’s the way it happened. The gamblers certainly thought so.

Trump didn’t necessarily win big enough to change the course of the race — he simply got the better of Clinton in the debate. At times he was witty, accusing her of blaming Abraham Lincoln for her statements leaked from one of her private, well-remunerated Wall Street speeches.

Perhaps he went overboard promising in a presidential debate to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Clinton if he won the election. (Of course, Democrats were only recently cheering the criminalization of political opposition when they indicted Rick Perry for vetoing a bill as governor, and when they persecuted Scott Walker and much of his staff in a politically motivated investigation that the federal courts ultimately had to stop.)

Most importantly, Trump avoided any sort of meltdown. He even showed a surprising grasp of some issues. He did well discussing Obamacare, even if he was a bit vague about what he would replace it with. He aimed at and seemed to hit well with a key target audience when he discussed the need to bring back coal and steel production in the U.S.

Groping comments: But here’s Trump’s problem: As with the first debate, which Clinton won, there’s more to it than who gets the most debating points. There’s a context to every debate, and the context for this one will not simply vanish due to his victory on points.

By the same token, it is important to point out that Trump really needed a good performance at a moment when more and more Republicans were backing away from him and talk was even bubbling up about him possibly dropping out. He got that at least, and thus survives at least until the next debate.

Trump went into the weekend dealing with a problem he had created for himself unknowingly in 2005. His secretly taped conversation with Billy Bush was reported by the Washington Post on Friday. In that discussion, he proudly talked about how, given his fame and fortune, he could grab the crotch of random women unexpectedly and thus successfully seduce them. Despite being recently married to his third and current wife, he specifically discussed his attempts to seduce a married woman by taking her furniture shopping.

What he admits to describing — and which he now insists he never actually did — is the behavior of a sexual predator. It was bad enough that Melania Trump didn’t want to do a join appearance with him. That could mean more than one thing — for example, she might have perceived that such a joint appearance could backfire against him, not that it would be humiliating for her. But either way, that underscores the gravity of the situation and the fragile, vulnerable position in which it puts his campaign.

Trump responded to this revelation with a televised apology, and then by attacking Bill Clinton for behavior not unlike what he had described in his own taped conversation. His pre-debate press conference, with victims of the former president, gave some hints as to where he might go (and did briefly, although surprisingly without overdoing it) during the debate.

It’s anyone’s guess whether this has the effect of confusing the issue and helping move past the news cycle, or whether it will backfire by equating him with Bill Clinton.

The bottom line Trump’s victory was underscored by the need for Clinton’s team to find very petty complaints afterward, such as where and when he stood up during the town hall themed debate. But the fact is, if Trump had really lost, it would have been pretty obvious. It would have been unavoidable, given the context.

Still, his victory isn’t going to quiet questions about his character that the taped conversation about groping raised. The risk Trump runs going forward is that more tapes and more complaints from more women could emerge in the coming weeks.

Trump was trailing in the polls going into the weekend, and this debate probably wasn’t enough to change that. But it probably did prevent a death-spiral for his campaign based on that single taped conversation. The longer-term (and by that, we mean a week or more) question is just how much dirt there is for the Clinton machine to unearth. There are hints that many more Trump tapes exist, although there is no hard evidence so far that they do.

An even bigger problem: Did this debate actually expand Trump’s appeal beyond the 40 percent base that he seems to draw in nearly every election poll?

In any event, the most negative presidential campaign in American history is certainly living up to its potential. As we anticipated, the two highly unpopular nominees have little to do beyond attacking each other personally, and both of the debates so far have confirmed this.

Senate 2016

Indiana: Former Sen. Evan Bayh, D, has been gradually losing his polling advantage over Rep. Todd Young, R, ever since he jumped into the race after the Hoosier State’s May primary had selected a different nominee. This weekend’s filing of his income disclosures is highly unlikely to help his cause.

Bayh, who became a K Streeter after leaving the Senate in 2010, was already known to have become a lobbyist. And Republicans have been making this argument against him to anyone who will listen, to some effect. Bayh, they argue, went native in D.C. and lost touch with his home state. After all, he couldn’t even remember his “home” address in Indiana when asked, and none of his “neighbors” even realized he “lived” there.

But the sheer amount of money that Bayh has been raking in — $6 million since last January — is at a level that could make Hillary Clinton blush. Even his $400,000 in pay from Fox News for serving as a commentator is several times his state’s median income, but it’s only a small fraction of what he made. His positions on four corporate boards brought in $1.76 million. He got $2 million as an advisor to a private equity firm and the same amount again as a partner at his lobbying firm.

It’s impossible to imagine someone with his skills earning this kind of money except in the context that he is cashing in on his time in public service.

After just six years out of public life, Bayh is now worth up to $50 million. In a close race — and this race is being kept closer by Trump’s reasonably good numbers in the Hoosier State — this sort of thing could really make a difference.

One more thing. If Indiana comes off the table for Democratic Senate pickups, the Dems’ path to controlling the Senate becomes much more difficult. This is one to keep watching, no matter how the presidential race goes.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 40-

This week:

  • Will Trump’s tough week hurt his chances?
  • Or is he really bulletproof?
  • Clinton-Sanders friction

How many hundred times in the past year have you heard people write off Donald Trump over his latest outrage du jour, only to see him survive and even thrive over and over again?

We’ve come a long way since he called illegal immigrants rapists in his launch speech, insulted John McCain, and was forced into civil court over Trump University — just to name three out of more than a hundred applicable examples. Yet it’s now Fall 2016, he’s right there in the presidential race — not winning, perhaps, but well within striking distance in all the swing states he might need to become president.

Trump’s behavior and demeanor are unlike anything voters have seen before in a presidential candidate, at least in this country. And he’s managed to normalize himself in the public mind. Over and over again, he has sloughed off what seemed like a potential campaign-killer. And the public has largely learned to shrug off whatever his apparent problem happens to be at the moment.

So now that Trump is having arguably his campaign’s toughest week yet, we’re finally going to get an answer as to whether anything can stop the Donald.

Debate: The polls (the real ones, anyway) are univocal in stating that Hillary Clinton won the first debate. The real question is how much or whether it matters.

After all, when you’re dealing with a candidate as unusual as Trump, debate performance (like nearly everything else) becomes a much more subjective question. Clinton may be a better candidate for the debate team, but…so what? She’s debating Trump, and the fact that he acts like Trump is already priced in.

Only the scoreboard matters — it has to be left to the results in polls of the election itself, of which there have been only a few showing a slight uptick for Clinton. 

The main event: Also, Trump didn’t necessarily need to win the first debate. As we put it last time, he just had to avoid any serious embarrassment. He pretty much did that, at least during the period in which the debate itself occurred, and in fact he had a few strong moments early on. It was later — early one morning later last week — that his more serious unforced error occurred.

As far as the debate itself goes, Trump’s biggest problem was that he missed so many opportunities to strike Clinton that he might have exploited a lot better with a bit more preparation.

Just to give one example: Sid Blumenthal’s participation in stoking rumors about President Obama’s birthplace in 2008 — the “racist birther lie” that Clinton kept referring to during the debate — is not an easy thing to explain to the layman. Blumenthal’s closeness to Clinton, the fact that she tried to bring him into the State Department after this happened, and the fact that she rewarded him anyway with a large Clinton Foundation paycheck when it didn’t work out are all important parts of the story. Trump wasn’t prepared to offer a short version. People familiar with the controversy surely understood what Trump meant when he called Clinton “holier than thou,” but Trump was reduced to pointing viewers to the Internet to look up facts — something he did more than once in this debate, always for the same reason.

Post-debate: The bar was higher for Clinton in the first debate, because she needed it to pull her campaign out of a serious tailspin that had been caused by her simultaneous outburst of legal and health problems. The worst result of the debate itself for Trump is that she got what she needed. The news cycle moves quickly, and Clinton’s above-adequate performance helped drown out a few of her more inconvenient problems.

Along the way, she’s gotten some big help from Trump himself. The most potentially damaging debate moment for Trump didn’t come until well after the event was over — Trump’s 3 a.m. Twitter tirade over a former Miss Universe whom he had called “Miss Piggy.” Clinton had brought her up apropos of nothing during the debate itself, and Trump’s reaction demonstrated that she had definitely gotten under his skin. It’s likely this issue would never have taken off without his help. Even if it doesn’t end Trump, it’s certainly a change from the pre-debate environment, in which he was pressing his advantages over her and posting strong poll numbers.

Tax docs: Trump has a reason for not releasing his tax returns — good or bad. But he probably didn’t expect the New York Times to get hold of his return from 1995, showing a loss of nearly a billion dollars. The Times noted that this could have allowed him to avoid paying taxes for 18 years, although there is no evidence that he didn’t pay any taxes during that period.

As bad as it looks, it is highly unlikely that his 1995 return is representative of too much — he’d probably be living under a bridge if most or even many of his ventures lost that kind of money. But the possibility that he paid no taxes certainly isn’t doing him any favors. Not that the issue necessarily carries quite the weight that some people would suggest, but Trump has only one good way to put it to bed: Release his tax returns.

Add this all up, and Trump had a really rough week. He’s been under the gun before, but usually not from so many directions with so many negative stories. Don’t be surprised if it shows up in a few upcoming polls. If not, then maybe he really is bulletproof.

Clinton-Sanders: Clinton did suffer a negative story this week when was secretly recorded audio from a February fundraiser was released, in which Clinton discussed the “lost generation” of Bernie Sanders supporters who are now “living in their parents’ basement.” Sanders was asked about this on Sunday. No sooner had he commented that yes, the quote concerned him, than Clinton backed out of the joint events they had been scheduled to do together this week. Sanders will instead stump for her alone.

Nebraska: One bit of positive news for Trump: A poll of Nebraska’s second congressional district has him up nine points. Between that and his double-digit lead in Maine’s second district, he stands to win two electoral votes that seemed in doubt.

Granted, a lot of other things would have to break his way — including Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, and a handful of other states besides, perhaps including Pennsylvania. But even if that seems like a lot, none of the dominoes that have to fall for him to win are unthinkable, at least in isolation. The electoral math for Trump is still difficult, but it’s not impossible. So there’s a small bit of consolation for Trump fans, then, after a difficult week for Trump himself.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 38

This week:

  • Clinton’s lead remains both small and shaky
  • Trump gains ground in crucial Pa.
  • Trump still needs to do better — first debate offers him a prime opportunity

In a new campaign video for the International Laborers’ Union, Hillary Clinton offered her usual wooden delivery. After listing off her positions and accomplishments, she said to her remote audience: “Having said all this, ‘Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?’ you might ask.”

That’s a question that a lot of Democrats are asking themselves right now. And not a few Republicans, too.

Shaky lead: Clinton, of course, has her issues, as Friday night’s FBI document dump once again reminds everyone. That is probably enough to explain the lack of a 50-point lead. But with Donald Trump closing the national gap and improving his numbers in several key states, one thing seems clear: There is a much bigger appetite out there for what he’s selling than most people believed when he began or even when he clinched the nomination.

It’s still quite possible to imagine a Trump collapse, but it’s been wrongly predicted many times before. For the moment, he seems headed at least toward a close finish with Clinton, and possibly even a narrow win with a plurality of the popular vote. Politicos are wondering less about whether this election will end in a disaster for Republicans down-ticket, and more whether Trump might somehow be able to pull it off.

Nate Silver, the prognosticator at, has declared that Clinton’s lead is a lot less safe right now than President Obama’s was at any point in 2012. And bear in mind when you read that, an awful lot of people thought Mitt Romney was going to beat him, right up to the last moment on election day.

Silver’s argument hinges on the fact that Clinton doesn’t have big leads in swing states the way Obama did. Trump is either competitive or leading in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Maine, and now perhaps even Pennsylvania. And Clinton has to view last Thursday’s Quinnipiac poll of Colorado — an outlier for now, showing her and Trump tied — with great trepidation.

Electoral College situation: Since last week, it seems that Trump has quite surprisingly nailed down Iowa, something previous Republicans have really struggled to do. (Recall that George W. Bush lost there narrowly in 2000, but narrowly won in 2004.) At least in this state, the popular pro-Trump thesis that he could bring along voters who don’t usually back Republicans seems to be coming in true.

Absentee ballot requests there have fallen off by nearly half (to 52,000) for registered Democrats from this point in 2012, whereas Republicans have increased their more modest number of requests by more than 40 percent (to 20,000). Again, though, this might be just as much about lagging enthusiasm for Clinton. Either way, it’s good news for Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and it suggests that the 2014 push by the GOP to catch up with Democrats on early voting in that state continues to bear fruit.

One other small gain we mentioned previously: Trump now appears to have a very large lead in Maine’s second congressional district, which is worth one electoral vote whether he manages to carry the whole state or not. (The latest poll has him trailing by three.) Maine, like Nebraska, awards two of its electoral votes to the statewide winner and one to the winner of each congressional district.

But the biggest move in Trump’s favor came over the weekend in the form of a new poll of Pennsylvania from Muhlenberg College. This poll had shown Clinton ahead by nine points earlier this month, but in the new poll, she leads him by just three points in a four-way contest. If this is at all accurate, it means the state is within reach for Trump.

Pennsylvania has been accurately referred to as Clinton’s firewall. If it goes to Trump, his path to victory becomes more than just notional. To be sure, it’s not enough for him to win — that would also require wins in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. But it at least gives him a path. Without Pennsylvania, Trump would be left depending on a low-probability win in New Hampshire, in addition to wins in Ohio, Florida and Nevada, and even then he might only end up in an Electoral College tie if Clinton picks up one vote from Nebraska.

But if he somehow overtakes Clinton in Pennsylvania, Trump wouldn’t even need to worry about Nevada (where he narrowly leads) or New Hampshire (where he trails badly). He’d have a real chance of becoming president.

Still, despite the terrible month Clinton has suffered so far, he hasn’t managed to catch her there yet. If he is to win, he still needs a big boost of some kind, beyond the setbacks Clinton has suffered so far from her health scare and her FBI problems.

Debate night: And this, of course, makes tonight’s debate all the more important.

A few notes about presidential debates in general, and this one in particular:

  1. The first one is usually the most important. It tends to get the highest ratings, and it sets the tone for all the others. That’s not to say that second debates don’t matter — Reagan, for example, recovered from a poor first debate in 1984 with a very memorable second debate. But if Trump is to make a move on Clinton, and to persuade voters outside his base that they should give him a second look, this debate is surely his best shot.
  2. Debates don’t usually determine the outcome of elections unless something extraordinary happens. There have been cases — especially for lower offices — in which debates have been decisive, but this usually isn’t the case for president. Then again, this election, like 2000 and 1976, is one in which it seems close enough that one big gaffe by either candidate could really matter.
  3. Because he still trails where it matters, Trump really needs to land a knockout, or better, for Clinton to knock herself out.
  4. The expectations in this debate are higher for Clinton, given that she’s running on a platform of experience and competence.
  5. Trump, although he needs this debate to come out positive for him, mostly has to avoid embarrassing himself. And note that not everything that would be considered an embarrassment for most politicians can necessarily be viewed as affecting Trump the same way.
  6. Clinton is in a very fragile position at the moment. She’s seen her polling support collapse all over the map. A single pointed question about her emails, if she handles it poorly, could well be enough to send her over the edge and into another couple weeks of floundering.
  7. Clinton needs a strong and competent performance to pull out of her campaign’s current tailspin. A good debate could reverse that trend if it leaves viewers with the impression that she’s a safe bet and Trump is simply too volatile and too risky to elect.


Senate picture: Democrats appear to have given up on tying at least one Republican Senate incumbent to Trump. In New Hampshire, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar observes that Democratic senate nominee Maggie Hassan hardly brings him up anymore, whereas previously he was a staple of her campaign.

And of course, the fact that Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is running 11 points ahead of Trump (and basically tied or carrying the narrowest of leads) suggests that the strategy just wasn’t working.

Another way of interpreting this, of course, centers around the lack of enthusiasm for Trump’s opponent. Clinton may well win, and she will probably win New Hampshire either way, but she is not like Obama. She is not about to drive record or near-record youth turnout and Democratic margins that can help carry a whole bunch of down-ticket Democrats over the finish line with strong coat-tails the way Obama did in 2008 and 2012.

Meanwhile, Trump’s surge in Pennsylvania could help Pat Toomey, who has been weighed down to date by Trump’s underperformance there. His numbers, ranging between the mid-40s to the high 30s, still give great cause for concern that he might end up a casualty.

The Briefing: Vol. IV, Issue 37

This week:

  • Clinton’s tailspin
  • Trump surges, but will it last?
  • New Hope for GOP Senate

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is in a tailspin this month. She is arguably suffering the worst month of any presidential candidate in modern history. And that has everyone — across the board, from every ideological perspective and background — reassessing Donald Trump’s chances at winning the presidency.

Meanwhile, another piece of news breaking this morning: The upcoming campaign financial statements will show that Trump has shattered the Republican record for small-dollar donations, already exceeding the entire amount that Mitt Romney and John McCain received in the sub-$200 category throughout the entirety of their campaigns. They might well show Trump raising more than $100 million in such donations, which is unlike anything Republicans have seen previously. Trump’s filing will claim 2.1 million donors in just the last three months, nearly as many such donors as Clinton has attracted in her entire campaign.

That these two events are happening simultaneously speaks the unlikely chain of events that have led to Clinton’s worst month: 

First, on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, the FBI released its report on its interview with Clinton. The report makes it pretty clear that she lied to investigators, a federal crime, unless one is to believe that a former Secretary of State is unaware of such things as classification marks and doesn’t understand that planned drone strikes in foreign countries comprise classified or sensitive information. The report also rebutted several of the stories Clinton had told the public in an effort to tamp down her email scandal.

This issue was further exacerbated at the commander-in-chief forum, where Clinton was hit hard with a question by a retired naval flight officer who said he had handled classified information routinely and “would have been prosecuted and imprisoned” if he’d handled it as Clinton had.

The clip of that question is currently being used in one of the more effective anti-Clinton campaign ads of the cycle.

Second, on 9/11, Clinton “powered through” a diagnosis of pneumonia that she had been given two days earlier and attended a memorial ceremony in New York. On video, she went completely limp and collapsed into the arms of the campaign and security staff around her. Although the available video angles were from behind, she looked like she blacked out, because her body had to be lifted and loaded into a waiting van.

This, of course, played right into the health rumors that Trump supporters had been openly and actively spreading for several weeks. Suddenly, the health issue was on the table, for real. And so was the issue of how the campaign had handled this. They expect the public to take their word for it that she’s in fine shape, yet they hide a diagnosis of pneumonia. Do you trust them now?

Third, the birther issue resurfaces. So does a mainstream media editor who vividly remembers Sid Blumenthal telling him during the 2008 primary that Obama was born in Kenya and he should investigate it. Blumenthal, recall, was Clinton’s right hand man, whom she wanted to install at the State Department and whose bad advice on Libya she repeatedly took and disseminated to co-workers during her time there. The Obama White House forbade her from bringing him into the State Department, and we may finally have the complete story about why. In any event, after he had smeared Obama in this and other ways, Clinton still found a way to reward him with a regular paycheck from the Clinton foundation.

There’s certainly no defending Trump for his lengthy, high-profile campaign in 2011 to sow doubt about Obama’s origins. But Blumenthal’s involvement in spreading this false rumor — very credible given his record — makes it extremely grating to watch Clinton get herself frothed up with hypocritical outrage over it.

The revelation also adds apparent validity to what Trump said Friday when he acknowledged Obama was a natural-born citizen. Whether or not he had any knowledge about the Blumenthal story at the time, Trump said that Clinton had started birtherism. That is not true — she did not start it — but what does it say about her that her closest confidante and personal hatchet-man actively participated in spreading it when it still could have hurt Obama?

What do these three events all have in common? Their pedagogical value. If you wanted to create three illustrations that highlight all of the worst aspects of Hillary Clinton’s character as perceived by voters, you could hardly find three better incidents that fit the bill.

The first reminds that she is (1) a liar who (2) thinks she is above the rules that apply to other people.

The second reminds that she is (3) secretive and opaque, which adds to the perception of untrustworthiness.

The third reminds that she is (4) hypocritical, and of course (5) surrounds herself with some of the sleaziest people on earth. With good reason, of course — those are the people who don’t ask too many questions about where the money is coming from, and have no moral qualms about telling reporters that Monica Lewinsky is a “stalker” or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, if that’s what it takes to save or elevate the greater glory of the Clinton name.

In short, events one after another are validating the voting public’s pre-existing views on Clinton. Her best chance to change the subject will come with the three debates, and she desperately needs to take full advantage of that opportunity or she is going to blow it.

Meanwhile, Trump suddenly almost looks electable. The polls show sudden movement in his direction all over the map. Thanks to Clinton’s stumbles, Trump seems to be shoring up Red states where he was flailing (Utah, Georgia, Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina in particular) and taking leads (albeit modest ones in most cases) in polls of Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, and Maine’s second district (which would be good for one electoral vote). He’s also surprisingly close in New Hampshire.

Although it’s very much an outlier, there’s even a poll showing him ahead in Colorado.

What’s most amazing of all, though, is that this is happening amid relative silence from his campaign on television. Trump is spending a small fraction of Clinton’s massive ad buys in some of the states where he is suddenly taking the lead. He’s been consistently outspent, and it’s not clear that Clinton’s ads are doing much for her at all.

The picture isn’t all rosy for Trump. There hasn’t been a poll yet showing him closing the gap in Pennsylvania, which he probably needs to win, or building any sort of comfortable lead in Arizona. But the way things are going now, his election suddenly seems a lot more likely than most people expected.

The big question is whether we are seeing the beginning of something very big, or merely Trump’s high water mark — the brief moment everyone will remember when it actually he seemed like he could win.

The argument that this is the start of something big begins with the additional cracks that are showing in Clinton’s campaign. Young voters — one of the three critical parts of the Obama coalition — appear very unenthusiastic, and appear to prefer third-party candidates. They are not giving Clinton nearly large enough margins right now in polls, which suggests they may not turn out in large numbers.

She also seems to have a problem with the second key to Obama’s coalition, Hispanic voters. Bear in mind again that the issue with both of these groups is not just the percentage margins they give Clinton, but also their levels of turnout.

As for the third key — black voters — it was already widely expected that her margins and turnout would not match up to Obama’s, despite her reliance on them in the primaries.

As we have been repeating in this space since 2014, it was easy for Democrats to turn out these three critical groups when they had a rock-star candidate like Obama at the top of the ballot. Perhaps the Dems just became complacent, believing that it was their party, not just their candidate, that these voters went out of their way to support in record numbers when Obama was running. Perhaps their best days are behind them until they find a new Obama.

So that’s the one argument. The argument that this is just Trump’s high-water mark and it won’t last is still the one that seems more likely to prevail. (Although, hey, it’s 2016, who knows?) Trump’s path to an electoral college majority is very demanding. He still lacks a grip on several states that Romney carried — Arizona and North Carolina especially, worth 26 electoral votes combined — even if he looks better in Iowa and Nevada, which are worth only 12 electoral votes combined.

So the math frowns upon Trump even now. Even if he does manage to nail down all four of those states, all other Romney states and one or even three of Maine’s electoral votes, that still leaves him short by a handful. Even in that scenario, which seems optimistic for Trump, he would still need either Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Virginia to guarantee a win. (New Hampshire could also do it, but it might only be good enough for an Electoral College tie.)

The bottom line is that so many things have to go Trump’s way for him to win, and even now, in the midst of Clinton’s tailspin, they don’t seem to have broken his way yet.

That’s where things stand for now. Of course, all bets are off if we suddenly start seeing a lot of new polls in those states moving his way in the next few weeks.

One aside: Trump has the potential to win several Romney states by unusually small margins, then squeak through in several small states. This could result in another popular vote loser winning the presidency in the electoral college.

One byproduct of good polling for Trump has been great polling for some Republican senators. Marco Rubio and Rob Portman appear to hold comfortable leads in the latest polls, and the Democrats have openly given up on Ohio.

If Republicans can take those two seats off the table, and shore up Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., then their path to maintaining a Senate majority is once against clear. Democrats would be left with only five “soft” targets — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Democrats would need to win four of these for a tied Senate — or all five if they lose Harry Reid’s open seat in Nevada, where their nominee narrowly trails at the moment.

Although Wisconsin and Illinois don’t look good for the GOP, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire remain quite winnable. And former Sen. Evan Bayh, D, does not look like a sure winner, either. He has seen his lead for Indiana’s open Senate seat narrow to just four points in the latest poll.

One last thought: From the beginning, the fundamentals of the 2016 race (presidential candidates aside) clearly favored Republicans. Now, with few exceptions, the party’s senate candidates run well ahead of Trump in key states like Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

If Trump’s current surge out of oblivion is for real and the race ends up being a barn-burner, the election may not be nearly as bad for the party as it looked a month ago.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 36-
This week:
  • Clinton performs poorly in forum
  • Clinton’s “deplorables”
  • Clinton health scare

Yes, you may have noticed that all three bullet points above pertain to just one of the two candidates. That’s because the other one, for once, is finally seeing a few key things go his way.

Last week, we looked at the damning report that the FBI released on its investigation of Hillary Clinton. Here’s evidence that on top of everything else related to her emails, Clinton had lied to the FBI — unless, of course, she really didn’t know any of the basic concepts involved in doing her job, such as the classification of information.

But things wouldn’t get any worse for her after that, would they? It turns out she’s having a pretty rough month — one that could get worse if she cracks under pressure in the debates.


It was pretty obvious from the complaints of Clinton supporters that she did poorly in last Wednesday’s commander-in-chief forum, an event that allowed veterans to ask questions of the two major-party candidates. Her worst moment, of course, came when a veteran who had worked handling classified information pointed out that he’d be in prison if he’d done what she did with her emails.

The biggest problem for Clintonworld is that although Trump wasn’t necessarily stellar in the forum himself, Clinton was unable to get traction with a story about how he’d bombed horribly and demonstrated himself unfit for office.

One solution to this problem was to have Clinton hold a press conference the following morning. Because it was her first in nine months, it consumed a lot of oxygen, changing the story and giving the networks a lot of material to cover instead of focusing on her performance the night before. It was a clever move.

But Clinton’s team also took another angle. They assailed the moderator, Matt Lauer, for hitting her with hard questions and cutting offer her lengthy, filibuster-y answers. Of course, Lauer was pretty hard on Trump as well, so that’s pretty easy to dismiss. The real issue is that Clinton’s team is trying to game the refs ahead of the presidential debates, which begin later this month. If they can intimidate the moderators now and threaten to turn them into the next Candy Crowley, it might subtly affect how the debates go and how they are perceived.


One of the reasons Trump gets away with saying so many things that other politicians cannot is that he simply never (or almost never) apologizes for anything. This really sets him apart. It changes the expectations whenever you hear him speak. If he has a gaffe, he just rolls through it where others tend to let it take them off the rails.

Hillary Clinton had one of these moments on Friday when she declared that half of Donald Trump’s supporters are “a basket of deplorables.” She was at a fundraiser, and in the midst of flogging one of her campaign’s less effective attack lines, which she first went to several weeks ago, playing up the existence of Trump’s racist supporters in the so-called “alt-right.”

“To just be grossly generalistic,” she said, “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call ‘the basket of deplorables.’ Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up….Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable. But they are not America.”

This particular remark, given that it suggested half of Trump’s support comes from such people and that a large segment of the voters is “irredeemable,” arguably went too far, at least by conventional politician standards. After all, ever since the convention Clinton has been trying to carve out a majority or a large plurality vote by appealing to disaffected Republicans, some of whom are deciding whether they can pull the lever for Trump. This contradicts that strategy — it’s the kind of statement that hardens people in their partisan ways.

Clinton was ultimately forced to apologize after Trump’s side framed the remarks as an example of elite liberal disdain for working class Americans. Mike Pence gave the best direct (and conventional) response: “The truth of the matter is that the men and women who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hard-working Americans, farmers, coal miners, teachers, veterans, members of our law enforcement community, members of every class of this country who know that we can make America great again,” he said. (Trump handled it differently, going to ALL CAPS on Twitter.)

What’s incredible is that suddenly, Trump has Clinton on her heels for a controversial remark she made. It’s one more thing among many that’s gone wrong for her in the last two weeks.

Health scare:

Certain Republicans — usually the ones more aligned with Trump — have been trying to spread a lot of rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health. To be sure, she does have at least one medical problem (a thyroid condition) that everyone knew about before this week. But we’re not supposed to honor the perennial health scare tactic, right? Recall that this was used against President Reagan in 1984 (to no avail) and John McCain in 2008 (it probably didn’t have much effect), among others. But in Clinton’s case, there didn’t seem to be any reason to believe this stuff.

>Sure, people had been joking about her age for some months, but that was when Republicans expected to nominate someone substantially younger. Which they didn’t.

>But last week, Clinton had a massive coughing fit while delivering a speech. She made an effective joke of it, claiming that all talk of Trump made her allergic, but it was a scary moment for her campaign.

Scary enough that her people allowed her to attend a 9/11 commemoration ceremony. And then the worst happened — she collapsed in public.

The campaign’s initial reaction was to blame the temperature (it was the coolest day in New York City in a month), but that wasn’t going to fly. A public collapse immediately adds validity to every health rumor out there, true or false. After all, Clinton has a history of this — she fainted and sustained a concussion previously, a fact that formed part of the basis of all the health rumors in the first place. That incident, which supposedly also involved dehydration, sounds disturbingly familiar now.

Ultimately, the campaign was forced to issue a statement from her doctor — Clinton had been diagnosed last Friday with pneumonia, and was “recovering nicely” after collapsing in public.

What does it all mean? Pneumonia is a pretty serious condition — a temporary one, yes, but it’s the sort of thing that should probably take a candidate off the trail for a few days once diagnosed. Yet Clinton was there on Sunday. And that’s the most interesting fact of all.

It signifies that the health rumor-mongering up to now has really gotten under the skin of Clinton’s campaign team. Were they worried that people would speculate further about her health if she’d skipped the event, perhaps?

The coverup is always worse than the crime. In this case, the attempt to keep up appearances while suffering from an acute respiratory illness backfired, big time. Now there’s really a health issue, and it’s a big enough deal that the 9/11 anniversary was not dominated by coverage of Trump’s past flings with truther conspiracy-theorism. Now people are legitimately wondering if Clinton is healthy enough for the job of the presidency — not just Republicans and conservatives, but a lot of people with mushier ideas about ideology.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 35-

This week:

  • FBI news dump terrible for Clinton
  • Is she really that incompetent, or was she lying?
  • Trump’s shift from Point A to Point A on immigration

President 2016

As we noted last week, Donald Trump has been underperforming in polls of key states that he needs to win, as well as key states where Republicans need to defend vulnerable Senate seats. If the election had been held last Thursday, there would be no question that Hillary Clinton would have won by a large margin.

But as of today, the picture has grown a lot more complicated. More information has emerged that throws further doubts upon the main argument for electing Clinton — her competence — to say nothing of her already-tarnished honesty.

Suddenly, it does not seem unthinkable that the presidential contest will be a real race. Here’s why.

Clinton FBI dump: There are ten official long weekends in the federal calendar, and on the Friday afternoon before each one you can expect some federal agency to dump a whole bunch of bad news for someone. This Labor Day weekend was no different.

On Friday afternoon, the FBI released its 50-page report on its investigation of Hillary Clinton, along with 11 pages of notes about FBI investigators’ interview with her.

To say the report contains bad news for her is a dramatic understatement. The fact is, there is no way of interpreting the contents that turns out good for her. In a normal presidential year, it would obliterate her chances of winning an election. But of course, this is not a normal presidential year.

Liar, or incompetent? There are only two ways of looking at the answers Clinton gave interviewers. Either she played dumb and lied through her teeth about nearly everything — a federal crime for which others (Scooter Libby, Martha Stewart, etc.) have been sent to prison, or she literally did not know even basic elements of the high-ranking government job to which she was appointed. Take your pick.

It is hard to believe, for example, that America’s top diplomat — second to the president himself — would not know that the marking “(C)” on a document refers to the fact that it’s classified as “confidential.” But Clinton told the FBI just that — that she had no idea what it meant. As the FBI interviewers’ notes put it, “When asked what the parenthetical ‘C’ meant before a paragraph … Clinton stated she did not know and could only speculate it was referencing paragraphs marked in alphabetical order.”

Even worse, Clinton was asked about one of the emails containing classified information that she had risked exposing by sending it over her private email server. This particular email (originally reported on in June) was about a potential drone strike that the U.S. was considering in Pakistan. The FBI interviewers asked Clinton about this email, and whether it raised any concerns for her in terms of confidentiality.

Her answer? “Clinton stated deliberation over a future drone strike did not give her cause for concern regarding classification…Clinton understood this type of conversation as part of the routine deliberation process … Clinton believed the classification level of future drone strikes depended on the context.”

That’s quite amazing. We’re talking about a drone strike in a sovereign country where U.S. military activity is extremely controversial and, at least in theory, requires plausible deniability. (Bear in mind that the doctor who helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was actually arrested and originally sentenced to three decades in prison.) Yet someone who served as secretary of State for four years somehow doesn’t understand that this is not something to be shared with the public.

For the record, Clinton said she didn’t see any classification problem about many emails that investigators brought to her attention. She also said many times that she did “not recall” various things that nearly anyone should be able to recall. She had her lawyer present at the interview. It was that sort of thing.

So was Clinton really this clueless throughout her time as secretary, or was she playing dumb in order to deceive the FBI? (Not that those are mutually exclusive.) It’s not clear which interpretation is worse for her as a candidate. Neither is good.

There are a lot of other little things to be gleaned from the 58 pages the FBI released. One is that Clinton’s team lost a laptop filled with all her emails (including the classified ones) in the actual postal mail. Another is that she used 13 different devices to access her private/work email system, again giving the lie to the idea that she had created her unprecedented private server setup for the sake of convenience so as to use just one device. (Some of these devices were apparently destroyed with a hammer, but the whereabouts of some remain unclear.) Yet another is that Clinton’s server was breached by someone who knew how to cover his tracks using dark-web tools.

None of this makes the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute Clinton for reckless handling of classified information look particularly brilliant. Nor, of course, FBI Director James Comey’s recommendation to that effect.

Another concern: Between facts known previously and this FBI report, it seems that Clinton’s team may have destroyed evidence while it was under congressional subpoena. This is huge no-no, obviously — another federal crime.

The bottom line: Trump’s negatives are historically high for a presidential candidate. So are Clinton’s, but at every point in this race so far, they haven’t been quite as high as his. Trump’s chances in 2016 depend on Clinton being the more unattractive option.

This FBI report won’t necessarily accomplish that on its own, but it’s certainly a step in that direction. The result is that Trump’s odds look a bit better today than they did early last week.

Damn the torpedoes: At the beginning of last week, Trump seemed to be (and actually said he was) on the verge of adopting an immigration plan resembling what he had previously denounced as “amnesty.” He was possibly going to get behind a plan that allowed illegal immigrants present in the U.S. to gain legal status. He was openly discussing the fact that it’s difficult to tear families apart through the strict enforcement of immigration laws.

Well, a path to legal status may actually still be on the cards, but you wouldn’t know it from his Phoenix immigration speech last week, which seemed to offer a resounding answer: “Nope.”

The speech went for more than an hour, and Trump extended it by going off on every possible tangent. But importantly for his die-hard supporters, he held the line on immigration.

The emphasis in his speech, however, evinced a subtle change: His rhetoric focuses now not on the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but on the swift deportation of criminal immigrants.

Trump is approaching this as a law-and-order issue, much like he did in his very first speech. And that’s not an unpopular approach. Most people support the immediate deportation of criminal immigrants, and in recent years U.S. enforcement efforts have actually swerved in that direction, resulting in a dramatic increase in criminal deportations even as overall removals of illegal immigrants have declined.

From the beginning, Trump has been assailed for his harsh tone on immigration. But whether he can overcome that to win the election, there remains quite a bit of room for a candidate who prioritizes a zero-tolerance policy for criminal immigrants in the United States.

The fact that the Obama administration voluntarily adopted a no-funding policy for sanctuary cities, for example, demonstrates that there is political power behind the idea of using immigration policy to keep American streets safe. The main question in this election is whether Trump himself can exploit that power, given that his negatives are so unusually high.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 33
This week:
  • Dems eye North Carolina Senate race as a possible sleeper
  • Portman, Rubio still look strong, but need Trump’s numbers to improve
  • Bayh lead in Indiana remains large despite strong Trump numbers

Senate 2016

Democrats have all the advantages in this year’s Senate races, including the benefit of a second crack at the many GOP senators elected in 2010. But they have to be especially delighted that they’ve added another state to the map of competitive ones. North Carolina may be on its way to special status as a sleeper race in 2016, and its fall to Democrats would signify that the GOP Senate majority is history for certain.

Here’s a look at some of the races that have been polled relatively recently, with an eye on comparisons between how Trump is running versus how the Republican senate candidates are running. Note that however these races go, Republican incumbents are currently trailing in two others, in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Each summary is preceded by the latest polling in the Senate and presidential race. The Republican candidate’s leading margin is indicated (negative if he or she trails), followed by Donald Trump’s lead, along with the firm doing the poll.


Monmouth: Rubio +5, Trump -9

Marco Rubio runs 14 points better than Trump in Florida among the same respondents in this poll — another illustration of the fact that primary performance is completely unrelated to general election performance. Rubio has to wish his popularity in his home state had translated to something better in the state’s winner-take-all primary, and Trump must wish his overwhelming primary victory could somehow translate into better Florida results than he’s getting now.

Florida is an example of a state where Trump simply must do better for the Republican Senate candidate to win. At the moment, Rubio obviously has the advantage, but both of his potential Democratic opponents have recently suffered catastrophic scandals.

Rep. Patrick Murphy was discovered to have inflated his resume (fabricated it, really), and Rep. Alan Grayson was hit by the revelation that his ex-wife repeatedly went to police with accusations of domestic violence over 20 years. The exact story is unclear. None of the incidents resulted in charges, and Grayson’s ex-wife is not necessarily credible, not having actually divorced her first husband when he married her. But it’s all messy and ugly enough to harm him politically, whatever the truth.

Still, these scandals — especially Murphy’s, if he becomes the nominee — do not make this race a gimmee for Rubio. He is in serious danger of defeat if Trump is winning only the 39 percent of the vote that the Monmouth poll suggests.

In next week’s primary against Carlos Beruff, on the other hand, Rubio should win easily.


Monmouth: Young -7, Trump +11

This was supposed to be an easy Senate hold for the GOP, until former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., decided to jump in. A few things working against Bayh: The fact that he hasn’t lived in the state for years, and Trump’s surprisingly large margin, considering that Obama carried this state in 2008.

Indiana is a state that benefits a lot from foreign trade today (Japanese automakers employ thousands of Hoosiers), but it is also a state filled with laid-off former factory workers near or past retirement age.

The Bayh name, however, remains good in Indiana, and it’s going to take something beyond a strong Trump performance to put Rep. Todd Young, R, over the top.


CBS/YouGov: Grassley +7, Trump +0

Quinnipiac: Grassley +9, Trump -2

Many polls have been taken in Iowa, and they all suggest that Trump has a strong pull there. In fact, considering his appeal in Iowa, it is actually a bit odd that he isn’t doing better nationally.

As an agricultural state that depends on exports, it isn’t a state where an anti-trade message should sell well in theory. The simplest explanation might be that it’s one of the whitest states and therefore heavy on Trump’s base. But there might also be something else at work. One possible alternative is Trump’s pro-ethanol stance, which might not have helped him much in the Republican caucuses but remains an asset in any general election in Iowa.

Grassley is well-known and liked and hasn’t had a genuinely tough race in quite some time. So his margin appears to be smaller than one might expect against Patty Judge, a former state agricultural secretary and lieutenant governor to an unpopular governor who lost re-election in 2010. For the moment, he seems okay, especially if Trump can remain competitive in the state until November.


Suffolk: Heck +0, Trump -2

As in Iowa, Trump runs unusually well in Nevada compared to most other states, especially considering how badly Republicans have done there in recent election cycles. This should be helpful to Republicans, who hope to gain Harry Reid’s Senate seat, hold on to an open House seat, and cling to as much of their legislative gains from 2014 as possible.

Rep. Joe Heck, R, who represents the Las Vegas suburbs, is a very strong candidate for Senate. He had no trouble wrapping up the primary, defeating Sharron Angle by 42 points. But his state party is arguably the worst basketcase state party in America, aside from the Florida Democratic party. Harry Reid’s machine has been quite effective in most recent elections, except for 2014, in which Democrats essentially forfeited the top-ticket governor’s race and were massacred down-ballot.

Heck faces a strong Democratic opponent in former Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto, and desperately needs Trump to stay within a few points.

New Hampshire:

CBS/YouGov: Ayotte -1, Trump -9

The Senate race between the two strongest female politicians in the Granite State continues to be the horse race that everyone expected, but Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s chances of hanging on probably depend on Trump improving his numbers. Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, remains popular and was the Democrats’ absolute top-shelf pick to run against Ayotte.

Ayotte has taken a strange “support but not endorse” position toward Trump, but it really hasn’t put much distance between them. If Trump loses the state by only five points, it’s a lot better for Ayotte than if he loses it by ten.

North Carolina:

NBC/WSJ/Marist: Burr -2, Trump -9

Here’s a state Republicans had hoped would be beyond reach — and it really seemed it would be at one point. Democrats had all but written off their chances of defeating Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., settling on a bottom-tier nominee in Deborah Ross. But Trump’s performance in what was once a Republican state is poor enough that it’s a real race.

It’s all the more puzzling because the state is a natural one for Trump — a place where the loss of an entire industry is widely blamed on international trade. It is possible this most recent poll is an outlier, but Burr should be worried even if it’s close at all.

That Trump should trail by nine points — whether or not third-party candidates are included — is a real shock. Mitt Romney carried this state. And that Burr should trail at all is a symptom of serious problems for the state party, which has to defend not only Burr but also Gov. Patrick McCrory.


CBS/YouGov: Portman +7, Trump -6

You’d be really hard presed to find two candidates in the same party who are as different as Rob Portman is from Donald Trump. The current senator, who served as U.S. trade representative under George W. Bush, is a soft-spoken establishment Republican whose level of personal braggadocio is near-zero. He has avoided taking any strong stance on Trump other than to offer a tepid endorsement.

For the moment, at least, Ohio voters don’t seem to be putting him and Trump in the same category. Gov. John Kasich, who has refused to back Trump and even avoided his convention in his own home state, is strongly backing Portman, and that seems to be helping.

Portman’s opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, was unseated by Kasich in the 2010 election.


NBC/WSJ/Marist: Toomey -3, Trump -9

This Senate race was always going to be close, but Pat Toomey probably can’t win if Trump doesn’t find more support than he has now in a state he basically can’t win the presidency without. He avoided drawing the strongest possible challengers (one of them was just convicted of perjury), but this was always going to be a tough race.

Toomey’s attempts at a compromise on gun rights after Sandy Hook will likely help him in the Philadelphia suburbs — some Democratic fundraisers are even helping him, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg even endorsed him. But the Philly metro area is one part of the state where Trump will do poorly enough that he could become a drag on the rest of the ticket. Trump hopes to win by doing so well in the rest of the state that he can make up for Philly, but the polls don’t seem to indicate that’s happening yet.

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 32-

This week:

  • Clinton’s strategy: Focus on Trump, not GOP
  • Huelskamp’s defeat sends a warning to conservatives
  • Ryan expected to win his primary easily

President 2016

The conventions are over, and an unpopular Hillary Clinton angles to win with the smallest popular-vote plurality share since her husband’s 1992 victory. Her plan has shaped up as an effort to campaign against Donald Trump specifically, rather than against conservative ideas in general. Can Republicans stop her?

Steady Hand Hillary? Hillary Clinton’s strategic message for the 2016 election has become quite clear in the week and a half since her convention ended.

There was more than one option that Democrats could have chosen. One option — which will likely crop up in competitive down-ballot races — is to campaign against “the party of Trump,” and to turn the race into an indictment of GOP policy based on Trump’s expressions of it.

But this is not the path that Clinton is taking, even if down-ballot Democratic candidates likely will.

Rather, Clinton — much like President Obama did in his convention speech — is treating Trump as a sui generis existential crisis for democracy. Based on polling, this attack could work as she strives to win all of the Obama states from 2012, plus perhaps a few more, such as Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina.

Clinton’s main dig against Trump, under this strategy, is not that he’s too conservative. Such an attack would probably fail the credibility test anyway. In total isolation from his personality, Trump’s ideology is not really too far from mainstream currents of political thought — some of which (the anti-trade business especially) are actually more often associated with Democrats.

Clinton is instead going after Trump’s personality — in particular his lack of constancy. Trump, she has repeatedly suggested, cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons because he can be so easily baited by tweets. He is, the Democratic messaging will suggest, simply too erratic to be given the power of the presidency. America needs a steady hand that can preserve the status quo in a chaotic world. She represents herself as that steady hand, and simultaneously represents Trump as the chaos option.

This is why, in recent speeches, nearly all of Clinton’s attacks are peculiar to Trump and could not be used in the abstract in any other election year. She repeatedly brings up Trump University, reminds her crowds that many Trump products are made overseas, that Trump employees are often foreigners brought in on visas, and various other well-worn attacks that were already launched at Trump during the primaries. And then she talks about stock Democratic policy ideas and offers platitudes.

Clinton’s speeches are, as a result, quite dull and make no news, but that’s kind of the point — she doesn’t have to make news, and she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want people to have to think about the fact that their voting for her, it’s more important that they vote for the viable non-Trump alternative.

She is the plain vanilla candidate. And she is counting on Trump to make news in ways that will damage him as she rolls along steadily.

It is highly doubtful that Clinton would actually refuse to debate Trump. But if she does decide to use the current imbroglio over debate schedules as an excuse to take that path, it would be perfectly consistent with this. The idea would be to send a message: “I don’t take my opponent seriously because he is nuts, and therefore I will not debate him.”

Benefits and drawbacks: Whether or not she takes it that far, the overall strategy represents a low-risk path of least resistance for Clinton. It has benefits as well as drawbacks.

For one thing, it’s a clever way for Clinton to avoid ideologically charged fights that might encourage fence-sitting conservatives to make up their minds to get behind Trump. When a race becomes an overt ideological battle, it’s a lot easier to unite the Right behind a candidate. Mitt Romney, widely distrusted by conservatives in the primaries, managed to unite them quite effectively in 2012, despite losing the election overall for other reasons. (Just to clear up a common misconception here: Romney did have a turnout problem, but it was not among conservatives. White Evangelicals, the largest and best proxy voting group to measure this, formed roughly the same share of the electorate in 2012 as they had in Bush’s 2004 victory, and gave Romney a slightly larger margin. This despite the fact that he is a Mormon.)

Another benefit of Clinton’s strategy is that it will rarely put her out on a limb. With the primary behind her, you will no longer hear of her introducing anything radical in terms of policy, or adopting lines that risk serious ridicule. This limits the land mines in her path to questions about her emails, which were always going to be a problem anyway.

Drawbacks? The main problem with the “steady hand” strategy of running too hard against Trump and Trump alone is that Clinton could win the election without much of a policy mandate. This kind of messaging could also limit her coattails in downballot races, because the idea of Trump as an existential threat doesn’t necessarily harmonize with the messages that will be used in other races against Republican candidates who are not Trump.

A Clinton plurality victory without a House majority would sharply limit what she could do in office. This would be especially true given that Democrats are bound to lose ground in the 2018 Senate class (Republicans have suffered three terrible elections in this class in a row) and that it is customary for incumbent presidents to suffer losses in their first midterm election.

House 2016

Kansas: The primary election defeat of Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R, in Kansas’ First District came as a result of voter discontent and heavy spending by various interests, including agricultural ones. It serves as a warning for conservatives about fighting House leadership.

Huelskamp’s loss of his seat on the House Agriculture Committee figured heavily. It had been punishment for votes he had taken against Leadership under Speaker John Boehner. At the time in late 2012, Huelskamp called it a reprisal for his votes against budget and debt deals. “I promised to fight for conservative values,” he said at the time. “I voted exactly like I said I would and will continue to fight. But to be punished, removed from two committees, is stunning.”

Huelskamp survived the next election — the 2014 midterm — but in a 55 to 45 percent race against a primary challenger who spent practically nothing on his campaign. That was a clear sign of weakness that invited this year’s more robust challenge.

This defeat comes after several election cycles in which conservatives had gained ground by waging primaries against moderate incumbents. The warning to conservatives — which is perhaps less relevant under Speaker Paul Ryan than it had been under Boehner — is first that there are dangers in fighting leadership. One much pick one’s battles when doing so. The second is that local issues matter. Ideology is not enough to save you from the wrath of the voters if you fail to mind the home front.

Wisconsin: On Tuesday, Speaker Paul Ryan, R, will easily defeat his primary opponent, Paul Nehlen. Trump’s late endorsement of Ryan, after some reluctance, is more an acknowledgment of what is going to happen in this race than any sign of heartfelt support. The acrimony between the two men is as evident now as it was when Ryan reluctantly endorsed Trump after a similar delay.

Trump has only explicitly endorsed in two House races now — for Ryan, and for Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., who lost her House primary earlier in the year.


The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 31-

This week:

  • Clinton gets a small boost from her convention
  • Fear, not love, will drive Clinton’s vote
  • Khan controversy

Convention bounce? Democrats staged a strong convention in Philadelphia, but for the weakest candidate they have nominated since at least Michael Dukakis.

The attempts to define and redefine Hillary Clinton were impressive, with Bill Clinton trying to humanize her and cast her as the change agent no one believes her to be. President Obama tried to redefine her as an Obama surrogate — the person who will represent him and his goals in a third Obama term.

But when the convention reached its climax, viewers were reminded of who Clinton really is — someone who has a hard time saying anything sincere. Her speech was deadly dull except when she was attacking Trump. Her unskilled and monotonic delivery (characteristic of all written speeches she delivers) made matters worse. Supporters in the crowd had to chant her name in order to drown out heckling from Bernie Sanders supporters.

And in retrospect, the business about attacking Trump is the key to the entire Democratic convention. Every successful speech focused on him. The attempts to define her — a candidate who unfavorables are nearly as high as Trump’s — were a waste of time. Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, and even the better parts of Obama’s speech all dedicated themselves to attacking Trump, and theirs were probably the only memorable speeches in what was a fairly well-choreographed event. Whether they are attacking Trump for pro-Putin sympathies or for his various remarks throughout the campaign season, attacks on Trump are the only thing

And so just as Trump turned the Republican primary into a contest that was all about himself, so has he succeeded in turning the general election into such a contest.

Bernie Bros: Given that Clinton is such an unattractive candidate with a serious trustworthiness problem, her only viable strategy for the general election is a relentless barrage of negative attacks against Trump.

It remains uncertain whether a large number on the Left will follow the lead of the bitter-ender Sanders supporters who caused so much trouble for Clinton at the convention, and vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein. They were stamped out procedurally and even lectured from the dais (by Sarah Silverman, no less), but those bitter-enders are voicing feelings shared even by some who will ultimately hold their noses and vote for Clinton.

Clinton is no Obama. And it doesn’t help her much that the U.S. has been more than ready to elect a woman president (provided it’s the right one) for decades, because that breakthrough just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. No one this side of elderly feminists feels enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton the way people once did for Obama, or for her husband during and after his impeachment, or on the other side for George W. Bush at the height of his 2004 re-elect, or for Ronald Reagan, to list a few modern examples.

Clinton cited the famous FDR quote in her convention speech — “nothing to fear but fear itself.” Yet it will be fear, not love, that drives the Democratic vote for Clinton. And as the experience of Obama’s elections demonstrates, love can be a much more powerful motivator than fear.

Eye on polling: Did the Philly convention help Clinton? It at least appears that it did. The Morning Consult poll, which showed Trump getting a healthy bounce from the Republican convention in Cleveland, suggested that Clinton had benefited from a seven-point swing, returning the race to roughly where it had been before. Clinton enjoys a slight three-point advantage but nevertheless remains stubbornly unable to poll higher than the low 40s. There is also a surprisingly large number (17 percent) of voters who still remain undecided. When Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson is offered as an option, he gets 11 percent, and Clinton’s lead grows to five points.  

The fact that Clinton’s own numbers went up only three points right after her convention, however, is a significant fact. The assumption that she has any chance of running away with the race is suffering a serious challenge at this point.

Still, it’s important to wait a moment here before judging the entire process based on a single poll. We will have a better idea of where the race really stands once there’s been more time to digest what happened.

One thing that Trump’s candidacy has challenged is the level of comfort that anyone can have with conventional wisdom. So when conventional wisdom seems to be confirmed by the first poll we see, it’s worth asking whether there isn’t a bit of confirmation bias at work. That’s something we’ll only be able to answer after a few other pollsters get a chance to sample the voting public for a few nights in a row post-convention.

Khizr Khan Controversy: Khizr Khan, with his wife standing silently at his side, spoke in one of the primetime slots before Hillary Clinton’s speech. Based on where they scheduled it in the program, Democrats clearly underestimated it. It was not billed as a major address, and it was not especially long, but the Democrats could have cancelled Clinton’s dull speech (and Chelsea Clinton’s pathetic introduction) after he delivered it and been satisfied with how their convention had gone.

Khan is the father of an Army officer who was killed in Iraq. Trump’s original Muslim border-entry policy might have barred people like Khan from entering the U.S. (Trump has since altered his proposal). Khan was somewhat resentful of this, given that his son had died defending the United States, and Trump never served. 

This was the gist of his unexpectedly strong speech. But the whole thing probably would have ended there, had Trump not managed to extend its political life over the weekend. His reaction Sunday provides an illustration of why message discipline matters so much in politics, and why conventional politicians make such a point of remaining “on message,” even to the point of tedium.

When asked about the Khan speech, the best thing Trump could have done was probably what his running mate and other Republicans eventually did — praise Khan for his family’s sacrifice, and explain why his criticisms were wrong.

Instead, Trump was Trump. He went on offense. He said of Khan: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”

Whatever your opinion of this comment and its religious overtones, it guaranteed that Khan’s speech would be the main focus of coverage throughout the weekend and today — and perhaps for a few more days. It also immensely boosted Khan’s value as a surrogate speaker for Clinton between now and November, and — who knows? — perhaps it has even cleared the way for him to begin his own political career.

This sort of thing helps demonstrate why politicians and political professionals habitually (and often annoyingly) behave the way they do, and why so many Republicans have concerns about the nomination of someone who relishes tearing up the rulebook. Those rules exist for a reason, after decades of trial and error by various campaigns by untold numbers of candidates for major and minor office in both parties. If it isn’t on your talking-points list, or on an issue where you are more knowledgeable than your audience and your questioner, you just don’t say it.

Trump’s messaging: Trump’s wildness has often worked in his favor this election season. He has a habit of squelching up bad news with a new but more ephemeral outrage.

And this is 2016, when it’s impossible to say he won’t pull this one off, too. Yes, Trump might skate past this bump in the road, the way he has skated past so many other controversies. But message discipline is practiced widely because it matters. It helps keep a campaign that is going well on the right track, and it helps prevent a campaign that is going badly from falling further behind. When candidates go off message, there is often a high opportunity cost.

Trump could have made a lot more out of this weekend than he did. New economic numbers suggesting weak growth gave Trump ammunition for attacking Obama’s record and the promise he had laid out in convention about Hillary as his third term. Clinton’s convention speech had been a real dud, and early post-convention polling hints that this will be a real race.

Trump’s high-risk strategy of personally counterprogramming the Democratic convention may have (counterintuitively) helped him, even if his joke about Russia finding Clinton’s emails caused some journalists and Democrats to get the vapors.

But the Khan controversy — unless it was designed to get people to stop talking about Russia — seems more like a simple error, and the sort Trump doesn’t want to repeat.

Political journalist Robert Novak used to note that one of Ronald Reagan’s greatest strengths as a candidate came from his acting career. He was relatively disciplined because he was accustomed to taking direction. Trump might benefit from paying attention to this virtue.