Well, that was fun last night, huh? Donald Trump pretty much sealed his own fate with his “keep you in suspense” comments, Hillary Clinton was steady even on the rare occasions when Trump managed to say something coherent, and the inherent weaknesses of the Trump campaign (money, organization, an insane candidate) are becoming more apparent with 19 days to go. I’ve been pretty much of the belief that this race has been over for a good while now.
But that’s me talking, and as entertaining as I am, I fully recognize that I am in the tank for one side. On the other hand, that was also true in April when I held firm to my belief that Chris Van Hollen was doing better than the polls were showing, and I ended up being very, very right that time.
But all in all, I suspect that Nate Silver has just a wee bit more credibility with all you nervous Nellies out there. So I’ll let him explain why he thinks Clinton ” finished off” Trump last night.
Clinton went into the final presidential debate on Wednesday with a lead of about 7 percentage points over Donald Trump. And according to the only two scientific polls we’ve seen, voters thought that Clinton won the debate. Occasionally, the initial reaction to a debate can differ from the way it’s perceived days later. But in this case, the morning headlines, which focused overwhelmingly on Trump’s refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results, are potentially worse for Trump than the debate itself. In YouGov’s poll of debate watchers, 68 percent of voters said they think the candidates should pledge to accept the results of the election.
There are less than three weeks left in the campaign, and there are no more guaranteed opportunities for Trump or Clinton to command a huge public audience, as they do at the conventions and the debates (although, they’ll get plenty of attention, of course). Millions of people have already voted. Trump has had a significant advertising deficit, and an even more significant deficit in terms of his turnout operation. He’ll probably spend a significant chunk of the remaining news cycles quarreling over his contention that the election is rigged, and with the numerous women who have accused him of sexual assault. He doesn’t have an obvious — or even a not-so-obvious — path to the presidency.
So we’re left to argue about the probability of an unforeseen event, or a significant polling error. It’s perhaps significant that almost no matter what news has occurred, and there’s been a lot of it — terrorist attacks, mass shootings, foreign crises, her email scandal, the Wikileaks dump, her Sept. 11 health scare — Clinton has almost always led Trump in the polls, although there have certainly been times when the election was close. What if her State Department emails are sitting on one of Julian Assange’s servers? That would be interesting, I suppose. But there are also October (or November) surprises that could work against Trump: more accusations from women, more damaging videotapes, further leaking of his tax records.
The other possibility is a massive polling failure. There aren’t really any direct precedents for a candidate coming back from this far down to win an American presidential election, although you can make a few loose analogies. Harry Truman’s comeback over Thomas Dewey in 1948 almost works as a comparison, but Truman wasn’t coming from as far behind as Trump is, and there was much less polling in 1948. Ronald Reagan had a significant late surge against Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he was ahead beforehand — and the surge came in large part because of a debate that occurred just one week before the election, whose impact was too late to be fully reflected in the polls. If Trump was going to have a Reaganesque surge, in other words, it probably would have started with a commanding performance in last night’s debate — and not another loss.
Silver also makes an important point that I’ve been arguing for a while now: that whatever the likelihood of a Trump comeback, it’s just as likely (if not more so) that his support collapses in the home stretch.
It’s possible, also, that the polls are significantly underestimating Clinton rather than Trump — perhaps a combination of Trump’s lack of a ground game and his voters’ feeling despondent because he says the election is rigged will yield a double-digit loss.
Why might this happen? Trump has no ground game, a piss poor organization, a dysfunctional and incoherent candidate, and a yuuuuuuge deficit in cash on hand. All these factors could very easily coalesce into a complete meltdown that would take the entire Republican Party down with the campaign, wiping out House seats and state legislatures to an enormous degree, results which could result in fundamental shifts in voting patterns that we haven’t seen in more than a generation.
Is that happy, crazy scenario likely? No. But it’s more likely than Trump winning, and a Clinton romp that accomplishes half or two thirds of what I envision above would still be an impressive and significant result. Each day that passes right now makes me believe more and more in a better and better outcome.
The creek is still rising, and I gotta say, that dam is looking awfully rickety right now, don’t you think?