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It’s time to take a Trump presidency seriously – it could happen

September 11th, 2016

Events this weekend remind us that the conditions are there for Trump to win says Keiran Pedley. The Clinton campaign needs to get back on the front foot and fast.

 

Whether you call it a stumble, collapse or storm in a teacup, Clinton’s apparent fainting as she left this weekend’s 9/11 memorial service reminds us that her victory in November is far from certain. (UPDATE: With it now confirmed that she has been diagnosed with pneumonia it is inevitable that her health will be a key issue in this presidential campaign).

Many will ask how it has come to this considering that Donald Trump is arguably the most inadequate Republican nominee in a generation. A recent Gallup poll showed 62% of Americans have an unfavourable view of him. However, as I said on this week’s PB/Polling Matters podcast (which you can download below), the truth is that many of us observers have misjudged this race for a while. As with Brexit, the underlying conditions are there for a Trump win if we choose not to ignore them. An average of 66% of Americans think the country is on the ‘wrong track’. The question is whether he has the discipline to take advantage.

Clinton the unpopular favourite

The main reason that Trump stands a chance is that Clinton is basically as unpopular as he is. Far from being a contest between a credible ‘president-in-waiting’ versus, well Donald Trump (as I must confess I had long seen it) to most Americans this race is a choice between ‘the lesser of two evils’. The same Gallup poll mentioned above that showed 62% of Americans with an unfavourable view of Trump also showed 57% with an unfavourable view of Clinton.

This is important. Much of the analysis to-date has focused on Trump’s dreadful numbers among African American and Hispanic voters. However, there has been far too little analysis of Clinton’s deep unpopularity with other groups of voters. A recent Bloomberg poll for example gave Trump a 25 point lead among white men with no college degree. YouGov shows 53% of Whites and 51% of those aged 65+ VERY unfavourable to Clinton. The reality is that Trump is toxic to many Americans but so too is Hilary Clinton.

A campaign fought on Trump’s terms

Given the unpopularity of each candidate it is vital to their respective campaigns to fight the election on their terms and ultimately to make November a referendum on their opponents weaknesses. Until very recently the Clinton campaign was doing this, aided largely by a series of unforced errors from Trump. However, the tide appears to be turning. In the past couple of weeks Trump has been resurgent. The news cycle has focused on immigration, his visit to Mexico and Clinton’s apparent weaknesses over her emails, the Clinton foundation and now her health. Her post-convention poll bounce has all but evaporated. We shouldn’t overdo it though – she still maintains a healthy poll lead of around 3-4 points nationally. She is still the favourite (for now).

Clinton needs to reassert control

But the Clinton campaign does need to take back control of events (pardon the pun). Right now it seems to be slipping away from her. It is for this reason that this weekend’s fall is so damaging. It makes sure that the coming days will focus on her apparent weaknesses and questions about her health rather than whether or not Trump is a credible occupant of the Oval Office. Clinton desperately needs to get out there, answer these questions over her health decisively and then turn public attention back to Trump.

Looking ahead to the debates

The coming presidential debates offer both candidates the opportunity to define the terms on which Americans vote in November. For Clinton, they will be an opportunity to focus minds on the prospect of a Trump presidency and why she is the safer choice. However these debates are also fraught with danger for Clinton. If Trump is able to surpass (low) expectations – much as Romney did in his first debate with Obama – then Clinton could be in trouble.

Of course we still have two weeks until the first debate. The next fortnight will be vital for trajectory of the campaign and will set the tone for how each candidate approaches the first debate. For Clinton, the task is to get her campaign back on track after a tough couple of weeks so she can use the presidential debates as a means of cementing her advantage over Trump. For Trump, he has to maintain the media focus on Clinton’s weaknesses and to define her as ‘yesterday’s woman’. If he can do that and then surpass expectations in the debates then he has a real chance of winning in November.

It is worth remembering that this is Donald Trump we are talking about. The likelihood that he can go the final 8 weeks or so of this campaign without making any more mistakes seems slim. However, the fact Clinton seems to need him to shoot himself in the foot to win is worrying. Right now, this campaign feels like the EU referendum where a struggling Leave side refocused on immigration and Remain didn’t have an answer. If Clinton mirrors the Remain campaign and fails to reassert herself she is in trouble. Forget the Electoral College and state polling – if Trump ends up taking a 4-5 point lead nationally it won’t matter. The Electoral College will take care of itself.

Clinton still favourite (for now)

On balance, Trump’s inadequacies still make a Clinton victory more likely than not. The balance of probabilities says we still get one or two more media cycles focusing on Trump’s flaws that could prove decisive as we approach Election Day. Clinton is still the more experienced politician with an awful lot of money and organisation behind her. However, having previously seen a Clinton victory as inevitable I am now not so sure. It’s time to face the fact that Trump can win.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley presents the PB/Polling Matters podcast. He tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley.

You can listen to the latest PB/Polling Matters podcast below