Thursday, November 3, 2016

Don't Kid Yourself; Hillary Clinton is in Trouble (But Still Leads)

If you've been anything more than a one-time-casual reader of these pages, you're almost certainly a progressive who -- grudgingly or otherwise -- supports Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in this year's Presidential Election. And like me you're probably troubled on more than one level by the FBI's October bombshell, and you're probably worried about the possibility that the bombshell could actually explode the election and deliver a most improbable victory to Donald Trump. Well, the point of today's column is that you'd be absolutely right: This is no time to shrug these latest twists off -- but neither is it time to panic. Yet.

As things stand, Secretary Clinton still holds a lead in the electoral college and her lead has shown a remarkable durability through an election season vastly more tumultuous than usual. Pundits ranging from Charlie Cook to Teagan Goddard have commented on the influence of tribalism in fortifying our national dichotomy, so I won't waste column inches with the exercise of pointing out that Donald Trump was being more-or-less truthful, albeit accidentally, when he boasted that he could shoot someone and not lose votes. Many, many people will vote for Donald Trump for no better reason than to prevent a Democrat from inhabiting the White House, and many people will vote for Hillary Clinton for no "better" reason (though I'm not sure there is one) than to deny the Presidency to Donald Trump.

That's not what has changed in the last two weeks. What has changed in the last two weeks, is which candidate's fortunes are being influenced most by this entrenchment of partisanship, and how large a role that entrenchment may play in determining the final outcome. And that as I will argue is not great news for Clinton or her supporters.

For three months now, the facts that Donald Trump has no ground game, and no staff to speak of, no database, and no coherent message other than race-baiting and misogyny, have had almost no negative influence on his standing in the electoral college. As insurmountable as Clinton's lead appeared, it never wholly overshadowed the same-time-eight-years-ago lead of Barack Obama, or even greatly surpassed his much less overwhelming lead at the same point in his reelection campaign, either. A big chunk of the population was going to vote for Trump this year, and he was going to carry a significant number of states regardless of whether he ate all the same vegetables as other recent candidates for the office.

With Clinton's advantage seemingly beyond Trump's reach, few among the commentariat took much time to note how strangely robust the support for Trump seemed to be -- even in the face of the Billy Bush incident, which hurt his approval nationally but cost him very little in electoral college projections. Instead the story through these past few weeks and months has been that Clinton was in charge of the trajectory of the race, and that there was very little Trump could do about it. The durability of Trump's unlikely coalition escaped notice because it wasn't big enough to demand any. In a very real sense it was "story-worthy in the negative": while durable, it was also too small to afford hope to Mr. Trump.

In the aftermath of the FBI's perplexing behavior over the past week, the narrative preferred the commentariat -- if not yet by rank-and-file polling respondents -- has utterly changed, and it's self-serving to say this but frankly I'm not sure how many others have noticed this change for the ominous portent that it is: Instead of the story being (even implicitly) about the durably small size of Trump's electoral basket, it is now all about how robust the Clinton Tribe has shown itself to be. Since Mr. Comey's announcement, story after story has noted that Clinton starts with a whopping-big advantage in the electoral vote tally of reliably Democratic states, and that there have been few signs of diminished support for her among the people she most needs, elsewhere.

But is that really what you want to be hearing about your candidate's electoral chances with less than two weeks to go before the votes are counted? That however bad her coverage gets, she's got a built in deflector-screen to protect her from the worst of the consequences?

Clearly the answer is no, and I would go the step further of suggesting that the punditry has missed its own tonal shift as the grave negative indicator for Mrs. Clinton's electoral chances that it is. (In case we've forgotten, a good many of us were saying the same things about John Kerry in August of 2004, and about Al Gore in September of 2000, and about Mike Dukakis in July of 1988.)

Meanwhile, if the change in tone-of-coverage is the canary off the perch, then the polling data is already showing some alarming signs of illness for Mrs. Clinton as well. Trends are pro-Trump everywhere, but the genuinely alarming results are coming out of New Hampshire -- once a Clinton firewall state, and now tied. As a recent article in the Washington Post points out, if Mr. Trump carries Ohio and Florida, ekes out an improbable victory in North Carolina, and holds in Arizona (all of which would be imminently plausible if the election were held today), he would then only need to flip New Hampshire and the one stubborn electoral vote in Maine, which would deliver him to 270 electoral votes, and ... welcome to the White House, Mr. Trump.

So yes, it is definitely time to worry. Perhaps even past time to worry. None of us can reasonably expect a continuation of our present standard of living under a President Donald Trump, regardless of skin color or gender, and even more unsettling is the prospect of a 2000-esque administrative stuff-up, owing to the apparent closeness of the thing -- except this time with armed militia crazies in the halls outside the elections offices, instead of these guys. Just about any foreseeable outcome on the current trajectory of the wider race, is at the very least dangerous for the whole country. Possibly calamitous. The natural question, then, is if there's cause to feel less than fully panicked about this, and fortunately there is.

To begin with, it's not July or August or September. If I am willing to cite Dukakis and Kerry and Gore as my harbingers of rough seas for Mrs. Clinton, then I am obliged to note that the critical inflection point in the fortunes of all three of Clinton's predecessors happened in the month, not the days or weeks, following a major negative turn in their media-driven narratives. Mr Kerry in particular spent the bulk of the summer clinging to an increasingly tenuous but only gradually declining electoral-vote majority, and may indeed have actually won the election anyway. Mr. Trump, by contrast, has nothing like that sort of time with which to consolidate his new message that the trap is closing on his hated opponent.

Second, Mrs. Clinton owns an enormous banked advantage in early voting. Her performance in this regard has been nothing short of breathtaking, with one source crediting her with 28% of the early vote in Florida ... among registered Republicans! If these early vote totals continue to amass, and so far there is little evidence of a fall-off in early voter enthusiasm for Clinton over the past week, then she will come into election day with a commanding lead. It's thought by some that her lead in Nevada is effectively insurmountable already. And possibly in Florida too, depending on who you ask.

Team Blue also boasts a vigorous and coldly professional GOTV-turnout operation, driven by complex data metrics and implemented by a veritable army of paid campaign staff in every conceivable battleground state. Mr. Trump rather famously has none of this, and the difference will absolutely, positively matter when the returns start coming in. It has also been written that the apparent swings in polling performance by the two candidates could well be the result of varying non-response rates by partisans being polled, as the media coverage of their preferred candidate turns sour. Many of these folks, we are to believe, aren't so much disaffected with their candidate, as disaffected with saying so to a pollster, and their true support is much more solid.

Taking all of these points into account, and with the pulse of things as they stand, as our best basis for extrapolating to November 8th seems to be a tense but ultimately unambiguous victory for Secretary Clinton. Perhaps the best takeaway for our current moment in time would to paraphrase a viral line from a Democratic campaign rally a few weeks ago: Don't panic. Vote. 

Dave O'Gorman
Associate Professor of Economics
Santa Fe College
Gainesville, Florida

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