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US 2016: Is the Trumpster heading for the electoral dumpster?

After a few days off nursing a nasty winter season-ending cold, J. BROOKS SPECTOR gets more than a little dizzy reviewing the latest Trumpean outbursts and developments in the current presidential campaign.

It is not too difficult to spot a flailing, failing presidential campaign in the US. Campaign managers keep getting defenestrated, tossed overboard or forced to walk the plank; new, increasingly strident communications gurus come on board to help; complaints about the candidate’s messaging and calls to let him “be himself” increase; the new polling numbers fail to reflect the candidate’s increasingly frenzied efforts to re-orient the campaigning, and, most of all, there is the increasingly certain knowledge within the campaign itself that this quest is in deep, deep trouble and smart aides are editing resumes already. And that is just about where Donald Trump’s presidential crusade may be, right about now.

It has been a pretty rough few days for the Trumpster – at least among those who actually read newspapers or look at anything beyond The Donald’s own angry, sophomoric tweets. Not so long ago, the candidate had jettisoned Corey Lewandowski as his campaign manager and then installed veteran political operative Paul Manafort as the new overall campaign chair. More seasoned hands and Republican Party veterans were initially hoping this new blood at the top would start reining in the candidate’s worst rhetorical excesses and, instead, chivvy him into something approaching a traditional Republican Party presidential candidate. This was seen as a matter of urgency now that the primary season was over (where a candidate won state by state through inciting support among fervent partisans for plurality wins), the convention was finished (to only tepid applause nationally), and the furore over Melania Trump’s purloining of Michelle Obama’s speech had eventually dissipated. Fat chance, that.

As the days wore on, the Trumpster continued to let loose an array of insults, half-truths, liar-liar-pants-on-fire no-truths, and sly innuendoes that kept journalists almost too busy to keep track of them any more. Along the way he had insisted that the incumbent president and former secretary of state (and now, of course, Trump’s opponent in the general election) were the actual founders of ISIS (later fudging that with the claim it was only “sarcasm”); that gun owning zealots might have their work cut out for them after the election in stopping a President Clinton from appointing judges sympathetic to gun control (or as Trump had put it, taking away their guns, and leaving dangerously dangling the question of “how to stop her”); and that Clinton was hell-bent on bringing half a million terrorist Syrian refugees into the US – just for starters. And all of that came after a week-long public snit fight with a Gold Star father and mother, the Khizr and Ghazala Khans, who had spoken so movingly about their son’s death by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004 where he had been serving as a US Army captain.

The core problem was that Trump’s campaign has continued to lose its lustre to many segments of the electorate, post-convention, because its message just hasn’t resonated with a majority of the nation. Polling continues to show that infinitesimal shares of minority voters support Trump, that he is decisively losing the battle to capture white university-educated women, and that he is slipping with their male counterparts as well.

His support still continues to cluster substantially among non-university graduated, older white men (and to a lesser degree among such women). This was the road to victory in the Republican primaries against a big field of largely standard-issue Republican candidates but it is not a plausible pathway to victory in the general election in November – and it seems especially not the case with usual Democrats or independents.

Most recently has come news that Paul Manafort’s role as a kind of Trumpean consigliore has been shrunken down, and that his authority has been ceded to two others. The first of these is Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of the rather right-wing Breitbart News. Bannon will now become the Republican campaign’s chief executive, and Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser and pollster for Trump, will step up to become the actual day-to-day campaign manager. Taken together, observers figure this latest move is aimed at removing those loosely fastened shackles on Trump that Manafort had supposedly been trying to keep in place. Instead, with these changes, Trump will now be freed up, even encouraged, to let loose his standard zingers, tweet bombs and all those rude, crass barbs at his opponent.

Commenting on these moves, The New York Times wrote:

People briefed on the move said that it reflected Mr. Trump’s realisation that his campaign was at a crisis point. But it indicates that the candidate — who has chafed at making the types of changes his current aides have asked for, even though he had acknowledged they would need to occur — has decided to embrace his aggressive style for the duration of the race….

Ms. Conway has past presidential experience in primary races, but the role in a general election represents a new one for her. She is well liked by Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who had been serving as the de facto campaign manager. Mr. Bannon has no experience with political campaigns, but he represents the type of bare-knuckled fighter that the candidate had in Corey Lewandowski, his combative former campaign manager, who was fired on June 20.

Mr. Bannon has been a supporter of Mr. Trump’s pugilistic instincts, which the candidate has made clear in interviews he is uncertain about suppressing. He is also deeply mistrustful of the political establishment, and his website has often been critical of Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader.”

Of course, Manafort’s position (and thus Trump’s) has become more awkward as some well-documented reporting has detailed a long history of his working with Russian oligarchs and friends of Vladimir Putin and Russia-supporting politicians in Ukraine. The latest stories also speak to monies being passed to Manafort to support lobbyists in Washington who were, in turn, being asked to seek congressional and public support for their cause, as opposed to the Ukrainian government’s (and presumably the views of the current US government’s as well). Such actions could well be criminal offences in terms of payments for abetting foreign interests with Congress.

The reported tangle of engagement with those oligarchs on the part of Trump as well is leading to rumours that one reason why he has failed to release his tax returns is that they may show loans from some rather less than savoury oligarchian financial sources. (Such information would, obviously, help clarify why Trump seems so prone to engaging in a kiss-kiss, hug-hug with Vladimir Putin, but would just as surely be a real voter turn-off.) Of course there has been that business with Trump’s call on the Russians to hack into Clinton’s e-mails as word has got out that they are almost certainly responsible for the hack of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent release via Wikileaks of much awkward and embarrassing conversation among DNC operatives.

Then, too, there is the recently uncovered saga of the tax debts of some Trump-owned Atlantic City casinos that magically lost most of their sting, just as soon as Trump friend Chris Christie became the state’s governor. As word of this gets embroidered into the speeches of Clinton surrogates during the campaign, such apparent special dealing will not help Trump’s cause in explaining how he wants to fix a crooked system and that all those corrupt money changers must be chased away from the US governmental temple.

As The New York Times reported on this latest development on Wednesday:

“‘You can’t tell whether there’s something problematic, but it’s pretty striking that this one was written down so much,’ said David Skeel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who specialises in bankruptcy law and reviewed the case at the request of The New York Times. The refusal by Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, to release his personal income tax returns has become a growing issue in the campaign. He has also boasted of his success in lowering his tax burden as a businessman, declaring last year in an interview on Fox News that only ‘a stupid person, a really stupid person, is paying a lot of taxes’.”

Especially, it seems, if you have a friend in the governor’s chair.

And then there is the fascinating circumstance of one Roger Ailes, a Svengali-esque media adviser to Republican candidates since Richard Nixon, and the leading figure in the creation of the archly right-wing Fox News TV. Ailes is tasked with helping shape the Trumpean persona for the upcoming candidates’ debates that are scheduled for September and October. Ailes’ gig at Fox News, of course, has just crashed and burned in a heap under the accumulated weight of accusations of years of sexual predation and harassment directed at women inside Fox News.

Going forward, the path will be more difficult for Trump than most people realise, for two reasons. The first deals with the electoral geography. The American election for the presidency is not a simple, straightforward national popular vote race – one where the first candidate to win the most votes across the nation becomes the president, pure and simple. The race is actually fought across all 50 states. Win the vote in a state and you effectively gain its full electoral vote (except in Maine and Nebraska), or the sum of the state’s representation in Congress, both the House and Senate. As a result, winning in, say, California, even by a few thousand votes, gives you 12% of the total electoral vote. Because Republican support is substantially clustered strongly in many states that collectively have rather lower electoral weight than do Democratic-leaning states, any Republican presidential candidate starts with a built-in electoral disadvantage, other things being equal.

Most analysts then argue that the electoral votes of about 10 states, called the battleground or purple states (as opposed to blue or red for Democrats and Republicans respectively) are the real key to a victory. In a tightly balanced campaign, these would now include Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, and perhaps Pennsylvania, and one or two others. However, the polling available so far in many of the real bellwether battleground states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others, is showing a consistent, growing trend away from Trump – and towards Clinton. (Along the same way, polling indicates that about 90% of Democrats nationally have lined up behind their party’s nominee, as opposed to perhaps 70% of Republicans behind theirs.) If such trajectories remain in place, the best guesses are that Trump will be beaten in an electoral landslide of epic proportions – perhaps rivalling that of Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 or of Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972.

The second factor – the elephant in the room, or perhaps the blue whale in the swimming pool for those tired of an old figure of speech – is the relatively new phenomenon of advance voting. In times gone by, a prospective voter cast an absentee ballot when they were unavoidably out of their state on Election Day, as in service in the military on overseas duty or in a far-flung military base far away from home, or if they were in the hospital or simply too infirm to get to their voting station.

But, in the past decade or so, the rise of advance voting has become a real factor in many states. In the days and weeks after 23 September, voters in some three dozen states will be permitted to cast advance ballots. What this will mean in practice is that the opinions and final choices of a wide swathe of voters will already have been made before the final month of campaigning. Historically, campaigns aimed to peak a few days before Election Day, catching the last full news cycle, and influencing voters who were still wavering about their final choice.

Now, by contrast, a major chunk of voters will have already cast their ballots well before the last frenzied days of campaigning, locking in the choices they would have made much earlier in the cycle in previous years. Given the current trend, that should significantly favour the Clinton camp, especially if it serves to lessen any impact from what is usually called an October surprise – an unexpected vote-changing event that forces voters to reconsider their choice in the final days of the race.

Moreover, the advance voting phenomenon also makes a campaign’s early ground game of reaching prospective voters and locking in their support through repeated voter contact and follow-up, as well as reinforcement via television ads, also plays to Clinton’s strengths. In contrast to her campaign, the Trump camp has only belatedly come to grips with this kind of detailed retail politicking, rather than relying upon the free media Trump had been generating, or the problematic impact of his rallies on voter choices.

All things considered, it is not really a surprise that in some of Trump’s recent interviews he has alluded to the real possibility of defeat, come 8 November, and that, should that happen, he will just go away for a long, happy vacation. Of course, in true Trumpean fashion, he has added that if he loses, it will be, no surprise, because the whole system is rotten, fixed and he “wuz robbed” in his native New Yorkese. DM

Photo: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump waits to speak at a rally at Briar Woods High School in Ashburn, Virginia, USA, 02 August 2016. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

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