Hillary in a Tailspin, Trump Shatters Record

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.