The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 38

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.