by Amy Walter, National Politics, September 8, 2016
Donald Trump had a terrible June and July. Hillary Clinton had a terrible mid to late August. Both were victims of self-inflicted wounds - one attacked a Gold Star family the other set up a private email server and deleted loads of emails that are now coming to light. The polls, which once showed a big Clinton lead, have narrowed.
On top of this, there is continued disquiet among many Democrats that Clinton’s troubles are more than just surface wounds. New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin reported this week on focus groups conducted by progressive groups showing Clinton struggling to motivate young African American voters. For a party that has depended on a strong showing by non-white and young voters in the last two presidential elections, this was a disquieting discovery.
Another top Democratic strategist I spoke with recently had a similar take on Clinton’s challenges with these so-called Obama coalition voters. “Clinton has actually said the right things about racial justice, and the DNC convention hit the right notes,” he told me. “The problem is motivating people who mistrust the electoral process - politicians can’t do that. If there is a problem in Brooklyn [the HQ of the Clinton campaign] it would be depending on too great a turnout from African American voters in their calculations about everything from her schedule to their ads. She seems to be more interested in getting endorsements from Generals and establishment Republicans than the leaders of Black Lives Matter or other people who speak to young people today.”
Then there’s the concern that the Clinton campaign has been too cautious and too passive.
Of a recent focus group, he moderated in Milwaukee for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, pollster Peter Hart wrote that “a lot of voters know they do not want Donald Trump as president, but they need to know that they can ‘live with’ Hillary Clinton for the next four years.” In a follow-up conversation, Hart told me: “The problem is Clinton is constantly on the defensive because she is afraid to be on the offensive. She is always fighting against some charge rather than fighting for some cause. Her career is just the opposite. She remains cautious and careful and she allows Donald Trump to control the dialogue and set the agenda. Give me the last day that Hillary Clinton dominated the front page with something that helped to define her view and fights for what this campaign is about?”
There’s also the lack of a clear or consistent message from the Clinton campaign. Walk on any block in America and ask a group of people to tell you what the Trump campaign is about and you will instantly get: “Build the wall,” and “Make America Great.” Ask them about Clinton’s and you get blank stares. Despite the fact that it’s emblazoned on her campaign plane, I don’t really know what “Stronger Together” means. Nor, I suspect, do most voters.
Slogans, like lawn signs, don’t win campaigns. But, this is more than just lacking a hat with a catchy line stitched into it. It’s about lacking a rationale for her candidacy. As a very smart Democratic insider told me the other day, “I have no idea why this woman is running for president.” Voters want to know what you stand for, but also how you will stand up for them. That message has not broken though.
So, are these valid concerns or are they, as former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe would say about those who who doubted the Obama ’08/’12 strategy, just the words of a bunch of bed wetters”?
First, as many others have advised already this week, it’s important to pay attention to trends and averages and to avoid focusing on one poll. As of now, the Real Clear politics average of national polls shows Clinton ahead by 3 points in the two-way contest and 2 points in the four-way polls. There is no state that Obama carried in 2012 where Trump has a lead. Clinton is leading (narrowly) in North Carolina, a state Obama carried in 2008 and lost in 2012. Advantage: Clinton. Take that bed wetters.
However, it’s also true that Clinton is a candidate out of step with the mood and the times. She is a careful, calibrated and incremental candidate at a time when voters are looking to shake up the status quo. That her message of stability and experience works is only because the alternative is seen as risky and unprepared.
Then there’s the question as to whether the strategy of simply being “the least bad choice” will work given Clinton’s own sky-high negatives and a less-than compelling narrative case for her campaign. In this regard, however, the deep partisan divide and growing dislike and distrust among voters of different parties can help her. A study released this year by the Pew Research Center found partisan antipathy at an all time high. In 1994, 21 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats had a “very unfavorable” view of the other party. By 2016, almost two-thirds of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats viewed the other side very unfavorably. In other words, hate is already a pretty serious motivator for partisans.
But, team spirit only works if your team is united. Clinton has been able to corral Democrats rather easily onto her side post-primary. Trump's recent improvement in polls is thanks in part to a coalescing of the GOP base. Still he continues to face defections from his own side - especially among college educated white voters. It also doesn't help to have members of Congress from your own party publicly rebuke and refuse to endorse you.
Overall, the fundamentals still favor Clinton. Despite a tightening race, her electoral college lead remains solid. Even those Democrats who are critical of her strategy remain convinced that she’s going to win in November. Still, they’d like to see a candidate who takes more risks, goes on the offensive and articulates a message that can give voters a better sense of who she is instead of who she isn’t.
At the end of the day, this race feels like one of those movies where escaping prisoners desperately try to stay in the shadows as a huge spotlight arcs across the yard. I’m not implying that either candidate is a jailbird (or deserves to be in jail). It’s really about the spotlight. As we’ve seen throughout this year, the spotlight has not been their friend. When it hits them it exposes their flaws instead of highlighting their strengths. Their poll numbers and their favorability numbers sink. The question going forward is where the spotlight will be shining in October and early November. The more it lingers on Trump, the better for Clinton. The more it shines on Clinton, the better opportunity for Trump to close the gap.
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This piece is reposted from the Cook Political Report National Politics blog.