With 10 weeks to go until the US presidential election, and four weeks before the first of the three presidential debates, the Trump campaign appears to have recovered some momentum, and the possibility of consolidating its position,and getting back into the race. This is despite the efforts to derail it by people who don’t want Donald Trump to be president — perhaps chief among them, Donald Trump.
Two weeks ago, the campaign had its third reorganisation in four months, with longtime Trump associate Paul Manafort being sacked from the campaign manager role, amid insider tales of a chaotic organisation and lack of ground coverage in key swing states. Manafort was at the helm when Trump came out of the convention period and disastrously attacked the Khan family, parents of a Muslim solider who had died on active duty in Iraq.
Trump’s head-on attack (he asked why only Khizr Khan, not his wife, spoke during the convention, and then accused him of enabling Islamic State) was widely held to have been encouraged by Manafort, who has an attack-dog personality. Manafort’s association with pro-Putin Ukrainian politicians (through his political consultancy) was also unhelpful, at a time when Trump’s Russian connections (he can’t borrow from US banks and relies on Russian oligarch financing) raised real questions about to whom he might be beholden.
[Rundle: Trump v Clinton but a prelude to a sweeping political transformation]
Much of the campaign’s disastrous performance through July and August was down to Trump, who, according to inside reports, could not be dissuaded from settling old scores, principally with journalists — and thus leaving Hilary Clinton untagged, at a time when her exoneration by the FBI (and husband Bill’s cross-country sprint to have an onboard chat with Attorney-General Loretta Lynch) appeared to summarise all the misgivings about her.
Trump’s several other missteps — claiming Obama founded IS, appearing to solicit the assassination of his opponent, lack of fundraising prowess, and absent campaign (no TV ads, one office in Florida), and a desire to campaign in non-swing states had the Republican National Committee reading the riot act to Trump and threatening to switch all party money to Senate and House races. The last time that happened, to some degree — with Bob Dole in 1996 — it was with Dole’s consent (grudging, but still), and he campaigned in close Senate race states, not presidential swing states. To defund Trump would effectively be a sign of party collapse.
Trump’s family-based campaign appeared to finally get through to the Donald — helped perhaps by the plummeting polls, and the dawning realisation that he might well go down as the party’s great loser, and its destroyer. Manafort was out, and Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Conway, head of communications, is another “ah do decluh” Southern belle type, who would bring a crop down on a slave’s back without mussing her crinolines, and Bannon is from attack-dog hard-right outfit Breitbart. Things did not look promising.
[Rundle: the working class is marooned, thus cometh Trump]
Trump’s initial attempt at a pivot was to appeal to blacks and Hispanics. The Democrats have given you nothing, he said. What have you got to lose by voting for me? The answer, in many cases, was newly affordable healthcare, a party supporting the minimum- and living-wage push and … well, dignity.
Simultaneously it was revealed that new director Bannon was being accused of deeply anti-Semitic remarks by several people, and that the Trump campaign was siphoning money to … Donald Trump, who was renting office space to his own campaign in his own building. And buying bulk copies of his own books, at retail. A visit to a black church was announced. Trump tweeted about the random shooting of a black woman, concluding “THEY WILL VOTE TRUMP”. The visit to a black church was cancelled.
By mid-August his campaign and the party were baying for him to “pivot” to a more presidential style. When he did so, it threw the campaign into more disarray. Having campaigned on a hardline anti-immigration stance — deport all 11 million illegals, build a wall — he suddenly adopted positions indistinguishable from Obama’s: deport criminal illegal immigrants, have some path to citizenship, deporting 11 million was impossible. “He hasn’t changed his position,” a campaign flack said, “he’s changed the words he’s saying.”
For a week, the campaign denied that he had backtracked into conventional political guff. Then he announced a visit to Mexico, and suddenly all his team were wearing “Make Mexico Great Again Also” hats. “They were Mr Trump’s idea,” a breathless campaign spokesperson confirmed. In Mexico, meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto, he again presented a softer stance. The next day he went to Arizona and told the crowds “they will all be deported — all 11 million of them”. By now, the press had abandoned the term “pivot”.
All this has occurred at the same time as Hillary Clinton has been copping flak for the shadowy nature of the charitable and influence-wielding Clinton Foundation her family runs, and for a persistent mumbling about the state of her health — near-death according to the hard right — and whether something is being hidden. The health beat-up was sheer desperation — Trump’s medical certificate of “excellent, the most excellent” health had been given by his personal physician, a Dr Feelgood lookalike who had written it in the back of a limo.
The Clinton Foundation accusations were more serious. In an exhibition of the usual towering arrogance that characterises the Clintons, the foundation’s willingness to accept foreign donations had not been wound up before the campaign started; the organisation was a transfer house for money into the US, under Clinton command. Nor was a relinquishment easily won by Clinton’s frustrated, angered allies and supporters. Much could have been made by Trump, but he was too busy giving daily countermandings of his immigration policy to land a blow.
However, Trump’s strange immunity to the polls has returned, to a degree. Though he is still doing badly, his numbers are slowly rising again, and they have not been freshly undermined by him trashing everything he’s said mere hours earlier. Judged by simple aggregates of polls, Trump is only doing slightly less worse — he’s behind in all swing states, and also in the red states of Georgia and Arizona. In trend-adjusted poll aggregates — a la Nate Silver’s 538 — he’s doing better, narrowing his margins to about 4% overall.
That coming-in would appear to be a wary re-acceptance of him by some rattled swinging voters. Whether it will survive the most recent return to fantasy-deportation politics — Trump referred positively to the charmingly named “Operation Wetback”, a post-WWII rounding-up of hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers who had been required for the war effort in California — remains to be seen.
Another worry for camp Clinton is the polling of Libertarian and Green Party candidates, especially the former, the personable Gary Johnson. Such candidates usually poll 4-5% before the election, and collapse to 1% or 2% when polling occurs. But Johnson is running at 8-10%, and higher in some states, and more of his support may be coming from disillusioned Democrat independents who cannot vote for Trump than from Republican Trump renegades. Trend polling removes the third party. Added back in, Clinton’s lead may be 2-3% in some states. Nevertheless, the crucial work appears to have been done. Colorado and Virginia are now solid blue states (unless the polls are really screwed up) giving Republicans only one real path to victory — the Democrats, multiple.
The election remains asymmetrical. Indeed, the process has now normalised to a degree. In other elections, it is which policy point or personal blow a candidate lands on their opponent that determines the swing. In this election, we watch Trump land blows on himself and then assess how serious they are. That has become routinised. Attention now turns to the debates, for which Hillary Clinton is preparing. Trump? Inside reports say he’s not persuaded that he needs to prepare much at all. He has expressed great interest in the background and records of the moderators — if such a term applies in this strange year.