With less than four weeks remaining until Election Day, the direction of the presidential race has become clear. Barring a surprise of biblical proportion, Donald Trump is not going to be the next President of the United States.
Hillary Clinton’s decisive first debate victory on Sept. 26, followed by a week of erratic Trump behavior (including a 3 a.m. tweetstorm attacking a former Miss Universe and a bizarre performance at a Spooky Nook rally), turned the election around. As the weekend prior to last Sunday’s second debate approached, the Clinton lead widened from one to two points to five to six points nationally. Forecasting outfits and markets rated the Democratic nominee’s chances of winning an Electoral College majority as better than 80 percent.
Then came the revelation of a 2005 tape in which Trump bragged to “Access Hollywood”’s Billy Bush about the benefits of being a celebrity, which apparently include committing sexual assault. Numerous Republican leaders denounced or unendorsed their party nominee, and some even called for Trump to step down from the ticket.
Rather than accede to the wishes of GOP elites, Trump doubled down at the second debate. He hosted a pre-game event, featuring alleged sexual victims of Bill Clinton, as if he were piloting a new reality show. During the debate, he called the former president an abuser of women. He characterized the 2005 conversation as “locker-room talk.” He aggressively challenged the former Secretary of State, her 30-year record and her email scandal. To his benefit, these antics pleased the Republican base and stemmed the tide of demands from his party that he quit.
On the other hand, Trump’s pledge to prosecute Clinton, augmented by his prowling behavior on stage, smacked of dictatorship. He admitted not paying federal income taxes and, in contradiction of his running mate, refused to criticize Russia. Fact-checkers worked overtime to correct his falsehoods and sweeping generalizations. Overnight scientific polls showed most viewers of the debate, especially women, thought Clinton won, though they thought Trump’s performance was better than they expected.
Though there is a third and final presidential debate scheduled for Oct. 19, Clinton is in a position to run out the clock. Her campaign continues to outspend and outorganize Trump’s. She has an all-star team of surrogates, including President Obama, working on her behalf. The mainstream media no longer tries to conceal its contempt for the Republican candidate. Even Saturday Night Live, which welcomed Trump as host a year ago, unveiled a devastating impersonation of the tycoon by Alec Baldwin.
The only thing that can save Trump now is a catastrophic event or new damaging revelations to Clinton from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or Russian hackers. Then again, Trump opponents say that more tapes of outrageous statements exist, though one wonders what more Trump could possibly say that would discourage his supporters.
Absent a game-changing external event, we should know answers on Nov. 8 to two big questions: How large will Clinton’s victory be? And will her coattails be long enough for the Democrats to pick up the four Senate and 30 House seats they need to take over both houses of Congress?
Experts say Clinton needs at least a seven-point popular vote margin for Democrats to have a realistic chance of a House majority. Control of the Senate depends on the outcome of six races, five of which are held by Republicans (Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana) and one by a Democrat (Nevada). Democrats are favored to pick up GOP seats in Illinois and Wisconsin, so what Clinton needs is a net Democratic gain of two seats out of the six toss-ups.
Regardless of the size of her triumph, Clinton must face a dilemma that her campaign strategy has created. By focusing almost exclusively on Trump’s unfitness for office, Clinton may win the election but fail to have influence when she takes office.
Other than a promise not to be Trump, what mandate for change can Clinton claim? Will her presidency be an Obama third-term, or are there areas where she wants to take the nation on a new path? What does she want to do as president in the first 100 days and beyond?
Furthermore, how can she succeed in the face of the inevitable investigations and lawsuits about her personal affairs and conduct in office that will be initiated by her enemies in and out of Congress?
Without taking victory for granted, Clinton must devote the last month of her campaign to setting forth her policy agenda and making her priorities clear. And, she must find some way to demonstrate that she can overcome the toxic partisanship that has infected this election. Ironically, that may require a magnanimous concession from Donald J. Trump, the man who wants to lock her up.