To say that things have not gone well for Mr. Trump in the fourteen days since is to say that matters have not recently gone well in Syria. Always the bombastic narcissist, Trump has responded to the conclusion of his biggest private show to date with a series of otherwise stupefying unforced errors -- the most well-known of which, his public feud with Khizr Khan, may not even effect the deepest or most lasting damage on his candidacy.
Consider just one twenty-four hour window from the past fourteen days, during which...
- In a Washington Post interview, Trump declined to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan against his primary challenger
- He reiterated that he hasn’t endorsed Sen. John McCain and said the onetime prisoner of war “has not done a good job for the vets”
- He slapped out at Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, saying “she has given me zero support”
- He suggested that Americans should pull their 401(k) funds out of the stock market
- He said he’s “always wanted” to receive a Purple Heart but that having one gifted to him by a supporter was “much easier”
- He said that the handling of sexual harassment has “got to be up to the individual”
- He accused Khizr Khan of being “bothered” by his plan to keep terrorists out of the country, and said that he had no regrets about his clash with the family
- He appeared to feud with a crying baby during a rally
- He reiterated that “if the election is rigged, I would not be surprised”
- The sitting president of the United States publicly called Trump “unfit to serve” and urged Republicans to withdraw their support for him.
- Trump spokesman Katrina Pierson suggested that Obama and Clinton are to blame for the death of Humayan Khan, who died in 2004, despite the fact that neither were in the executive branch at the time
- An ally of Paul Manafort told John Harwood at CNBC that the campaign chairman is “mailing it in,” leaving the rest of the staff “suicidal.”
- Sitting GOP congressman Richard Hanna, HP head Meg Whitman and former Christie aide Maria Comella all said they plan to vote for Hillary Clinton
- The Washington Post released a transcript of its full interview with Trump, indicating among other things that he paused five times to watch TV coverage in the middle of the sit-down
- A GOP source told NBC’s Katy Tur that Reince Priebus is “apoplectic” over Trump’s refusal to endorse Ryan and is making calls to the campaign to express his “extreme displeasure”
The effect of all this chaos on the political horse race is only just now beginning to register -- but as of this writing, Secretary Clinton has surged to a comfortable lead in the national poll of polls. Her biggest lead, according to Fox News (!), shows her up by ten points. Mr. Trump is in big and self-inflicted trouble, and it's beginning to take its toll on the firewall of support he's previously enjoyed even through what seemed to be his gravest missteps of the primary season.
Thing is, the United States doesn't pick its President on the basis of a nationwide popular vote: it picks the winner according to the weighted outcomes of fifty-one individual contests at the state level (including the District of Colombia). And as has been reported on this site at various times, the state-level polling often lags the true picture of the election by several days, for various abstruse reasons. Even without a return to normalcy in the dynamics of the race and/or its media coverage, we probably won't have a clear sense of where the individual states are running for another few days, possibly a week. And the point of today's column is that this is very, very bad news for Trump and his supporters, indeed.
To see why, we turn to the excellent and highly underrated reporting of Dr. Andrew Tanenbaum at electoral-vote.com. An expat living in continental Europe, Dr. Tanenbaum has since 2004 chronicled the day-to-day fortunes of Presidential candidates by tabulating their respective standings in the electoral college in real time, tallied according to the most recent polling data available by state. Tanenbaum doesn't project anything from polling data or polling trends, which has the paradoxical effect of making his reporting much more reliable than at least one inexplicably more popular (and very often spectacularly wrong) colleague of his. Instead the tone of Tanenbaum's site is reserved, sometimes downright diminutive, but it more-or-less has to be if prognostication is to be expressly verboten in this fashion. Point being, those of us who read him every day take the rock-solid surety of the thing and the clamped-down rhetoric as the necessary halves of an important and under-represented corner of the political blogosphere: If Andy says it, you're never going to be embarrassed because you repeated it at a cocktail party. He has a lot of friends. He deserves them.
All of which brings us to a report appearing in his August 3rd edition, in which co-contributor Christopher Bates tabulated the safe states for each party in a "blue wall" and a "red wall," and then commented at some length on the dis-equal electoral vote tallies of the two resulting floors, and on the dynamics of the race in the few states that fell in neither secure camp. Here is a reprint of the graphic used by Bates to inform his commentary:
The "blue wall" column in this graphic shows exactly what the name would suggest: the complete list of states, with their electoral vote tallies, which have gone for the Democratic Party's candidate for President in no fewer than six consecutive election cycles. The Republican equivalent was divided by Bates into a "red wall" and a "pink wall," owing in part to a fairly sizable discontinuity in the Republican winning streaks of the two sub-groups.
But even adding the "red-" and "pink wall" together, the two subgroups of states only afford Mr. Trump a starting "floor" of 180 electoral votes, while the corresponding floor for Secretary Clinton is shown as 242 -- in a contest where it only takes 270 to actually win the damn thing. This is an enormous built-in advantage for Team Blue in the big contest, and it has been this way for some time -- independent of a self-destructive opponent. The graphic above would look exactly the same if Mrs. Clinton were running against Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush.
Probably, not definitely, but probably, Mrs. Clinton would be correct to bank those 242 electoral votes against any rival. A case can be made that Pennsylvania might be more- or less competitive, given a certain specific Republican candidate; a similar case can be made regarding Wisconsin or Michigan or Oregon. But these are the arguments we hear from Republican strategists every four years, and somehow every four years the blue wall seems to hold. Remember, this is Andy Tanenbaum we're talking about here: he and Bates aren't calling anything for this November. They're merely stating the cold, hard fact that the Democrats have carried these 242 electoral votes through good election cycles and bad ones, in some cases over the span of much of our lifetimes.
It doesn't take your present reporter to note how close 242 is, to 270, or that a Democratic win in either one of Ohio or Florida -- all by itself -- would run Clinton's total over the top. So it may seem strange, in such circumstances, that the states I'd like to talk about here aren't Ohio or Florida, but Iowa and New Mexico and Colorado and New Hampshire.
And yes, that does seem strange, so do bear with me.
It happens that Iowa finds its way into the "swing state" category of Bates' table on the basis of one, single, solitary election: 2004 -- during which it flipped from Gore in 2000, to a Republican candidate whose name escapes me for the moment. I think he flew airplanes for the Texas National Guard for a while, if memory serves. Or maybe he didn't. But at all events, Iowa was one of just two states John Kerry failed to hold from the Al Gore coalition (the other being New Mexico), and for that reason Iowa is listed objectively as up for grabs. Except this is a state that hadn't gone for a Republican before that war-on-terror-soaked fiasco since Ronald Reagan. Notably, Iowans even chose Michael Dukakis over George H W Bush in 1988, a distinction shared by just nine other states and the District of Colombia.
If for the moment we assume away Karl Rove's magical anti-gay-marriage gambit and the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq including Humayun Khan, the streak of Democratic victories in Iowa would stand at seven -- the same as Hawaii and New York. It seems reasonable to me to consider such a state a relatively safe bet for the good guys. I'll be happy to take a wager or two on the subject if anyone's interested.
This is a counterfactual, of course, and once one plays such games with the data there is no hard limit on where they can lead. But let's put it this way: To believe that Iowa is in play this year, you must believe that Mr. Trump is capable of appealing to a wider coalition of Iowans, or a narrower coalition in much deeper numbers, than were willing to cast their votes for either George Bush Senior, Bob Dole, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. Let me just repeat that last part: Mitt, freaking, Romney didn't win in Iowa. And Mitt Romney won 27% of the non-white vote in 2012.
Yes, Iowa is whiter than the country at large -- but so is Minnesota, and in both places the under-structure of that homogeneity is a smart and well-funded school system and a long tradition of deep commitments to Democratic-Party ideals, if not practices, on issues ranging from organized labor to agricultural subsidies. Maybe Iowa really is a swing state, but as someone who suffered and bled for John Kerry more than most (I was unemployed at the time), I just can't see it.
The other state that Mr. Kerry failed to hold, is New Mexico. And here the swing-state status is rendered even more dubious by the large and growing Hispanic population -- effectively none of whom are planning, even now, to cast ballots for Mr. Trump. New Mexico didn't vote for Dukakis in 1988, but except for 2004 it has turned blue on every election night since, which would peg its counterfactual, John-Kerry-less streak at six, or the same as California and Connecticut. I'll be happy to take wagers from any Trump supporters on that one too, thank you very much.
Next door to the Land of Enchantment is the much more defensibly swingy state of Colorado, which in the last six elections has gone twice for Barack Obama, twice for George W. Bush, and once for- and once against Bill Clinton. On paper at least, it doesn't get any swingier than that. But these historic data points harbor an even bigger problem than the large and growing Hispanic population in the inter-mountain west, which is that Colorado is also home to a large and growing population of former Californians, most of whom owe their relocation to the wild successes of the American technology sector, and are therefore much more liberal. The dynamics of the race in The Centennial State have been sour for Mr. Trump almost from the beginning, and they have soured so dramatically in the past few polling cycles that the Clinton Campaign has quietly non-renewed their advertising buys in the state until further notice.
Across the country, if not the ideological spectrum, is the Granite State of New Hampshire, whose status in Bates' swing-state table is owed to the most heartbreaking and little-known fact of this entire column: The fact that it, and it alone in the Northeast, voted for George W. Bush in 2000. Without those four electoral votes, Bush would have lost to Al Gore despite all the shenanigans in Florida.
People love to say that a few hundred votes in Florida determined who would be President in 2000, but with all the controversy surrounding that state's count we may never confidently know for sure. What's much less in dispute is that Bush carried New Hampshire by fewer than 7,000 persons -- meaning that if 3,500 of them had reversed themselves, much of the unspeakable carnage and global heartbreak that has followed would never have happened. It is an idea not to be borne any longer, so let's leave it there by observing that, if we reverse New Hampshire's outcome in 2000, their streak of Democratic-Party victories would also stand at six. Again, wagers are welcomed and encouraged.
For any of these states to fall for Mr. Trump, a person would have to believe that one-time victories in some of them are better predictors than pulled advertising in others. This might be the conservative play in some parallel universe with an election that featured two grown-ups, but in this election it seems nothing short of willful. More specifically, considering these four states to be in play any more than Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania represents a stretch of sufficient proportions to raise equally valid questions about the predictability of the blue wall itself. In other words, I fail to see how one can confidently bank Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania for the Clinton team, and not include the four states I've listed here.
Okay. Assuming you've stayed with me this far, let's add Iowa, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Colorado to Secretary Clinton's blue wall, and see where that leaves things (courtesy of 270towin.com).
Cosmetically, at least at first, there's nothing terribly different about this map from any number of unresolved maps of the electoral college we've all been playing with on this site and others for the past dozen years, now. Some states are blue, some are red, and some -- five, to be exact -- are legitimately up for grabs: Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and of course Florida. At a glance, this is dog-bites-man stuff.
But incline a little closer to the map and you'll notice something genuinely arresting about it: Unless you disagree wholescale with the arguments I've employed to get us to this point, Secretary Clinton stands exactly one state shy of being President. She can lose any four of the five gray states above, as long as she wins the fifth one, and she's over the top. This, you understand, is before we factor-in the structural problems Trump is encountering in such otherwise predictably red states as Mississippi and Georgia and Arizona. If he loses any of these, it's truly curtains. And Mrs. Clinton is currently ahead in Arizona, together with North Carolina, Florida, and New Hampshire. Even a nimble political pro -- even a Jeb Bush -- would be in seriously deep kimchi at this point. Remember, most of the data we have on where things stand at the state level has not fully accounted for the blizzard of self-devastation to rock the Trump Campaign over the past few days.
And the caveat suggested in the title? It's not the one you're probably expecting. Yes, all of this can change on a dime: Hillary Clinton could be caught in some fresh firestorm of mendacity tomorrow. A bunch of nitwits could fly a plane into the side of a building in the name of a God who teaches us to be nice to everybody. Markets could crash or Boris Johnson could move to Poughkeepsie. But that caveat is both implicit and peremptory: The whole point of an electoral college map in August is to see where things would stand today, if the election were today, and to use that information as a proxy for theorizing about how things might proceed between now and November 8th. The big day is still a ways off, much can happen in-between, and these things needn't be said.
The caveat referenced in the title is that, for all his self-destructive behavior, Mr. Trump doesn't seem to be hurting the GOP's chances down the ticket very much. Tanenbaum has a running tally of where things stand in the Senate, and the headline that inspired the present column from yours truly was that, if the election were today, the Republicans would hold the Senate majority and it wouldn't even be terribly competitive. And the thing is, this is the result of a conscious and I believe ill-advised decision by Secretary Clinton: to reach out to Republican candidates in pursuit of their support.
Calm down. I'm not about to go on one of those un-moored Bernie-Brothers' rants about how Secretary Clinton is effectively campaigning as a moderate Republican. She is, and as Democrats we're stuck with that much. We got some real movement out of her on some key issues, and whether she means it or not is academic at this point because she's the nominee. (For a more in-depth consideration of why it might make sense to vote for her anyway, see my most-recent previous column.)
The error in judgement here, it seems to me, is in her apparent expectation that the Republicans who benefit from this outreach will perceive some sort of indebtedness to her come January, and that with this indebtedness to her credit Mrs. Clinton herself may look forward to more substantive and collegial legislative success in her Administration. Nobody has said this, exactly, but it does seem to fit hand-in-glove with Clinton's curious gaffe a few weeks ago in which she praised Nancy Reagan for having raised awareness about AIDS -- despite the fact that Nancy Reagan not only did nothing of the kind, she did the very opposite. Only a politician who thinks she can woo the other side into voting her agenda would make that sort of gaffe.
As strategic expectations go, this one is beyond baffling and into the realm of the delusional: Nobody, but nobody, in the Republican Party is going to take any position toward a President Hillary Clinton that isn't cravenly antagonistic, and for all her supposed political acumen she really ought to know as much by now. It's not that elected Republicans are all monsters (well, perhaps it's not just that elected Republicans are all monsters), as much as that the echo-chamber media outlets favored by their constituents will see a Clinton Presidency as a ratings bonanza, and will fan their viewers into the same sort of full-throated acrimony that can only be secured by someone who isn't just Barack Obama's third term, isn't just a Clinton, but a WOMAN, to boot. No doubt some of the Republicans who benefit from Clinton's non-confrontational approach will feel deep remorse at having to assassinate the character of their benefactor from the House- and Senate floors, but assassinate it they will. They'll simply have no choice if they don't want to get Cantored.
In such a context, the only sensible strategy is to do the exact opposite of what Mrs. Clinton has been doing: to run up the score as much as possible. To wallpaper the airwaves with campaign ads that morph Republican House- and Senate candidates into Donald Trump, and blend their most odious statements back and forth until the persuadable voters among us can barely tell the difference. Only by defeating Republicans, instead of trying to curry their indebtedness, can Secretary Clinton realistically expect a successful Presidency. Only with Democratic support in Congress can she realistically expect to accomplish anything but four more years of stalemate.
And on that particular proposition, I'm afraid I won't be taking any wagers.
("The Key Grip")
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