[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below] [8th update below]
No. Not yet, at any rate. Anyone who’s followed me on this knows that I have been dismissive of Trump’s chances in November, e.g. pronouncing him “all but toast” after the DNC and asserting numerous times over the months that Hillary Clinton will definitely win, period. And going back to late February, I confidently pronounced on social media that “[a]t some point this year—in two weeks or eight months—Trump is going to crash and burn. It *will* happen— this is a certainty—and be a sight to behold…”
Je suis allé un peu vite en besogne. Peut-être. He still has another seven weeks to crash and burn but I am less certain it will happen, for the simple reason that what will look like crashing and burning to those who are appalled by Trump and terrified by the prospect of him winning will not necessarily look that way to those who welcome that prospect. Trump really was right when he bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still not lose his voters. One of the many depressing things about this campaign is realizing the extent to which people in the same society have—thanks in large part to the Internet, social media, cable TV news (i.e. Fox), and AM talk radio—come to inhabit such different cognitive universes, with totally different sources of information and which they process and comprehend in totally different ways. This is not news—we’ve known it for a while—but it’s hitting us over the head in a big way in this campaign. If the 213 crazy or outrageous things that Trump has said or done to date, any one of which would have sunk any other candidate—or the 258 people, places, and things he has publicly, unpresidentially insulted—have not caused a significant number of his supporters to abandon him, then likely nothing will.
I am still reasonably confident Hillary will win but, along with just about everyone I know, am unsettled, indeed nervous, about the latest change in the race, particularly when situating it in the larger context of the right-wing populism, illiberalism, and nationalism that is sweeping the Western world. The Brexit vote was a huge shock—for me and all my pro-Remain relatives and friends in the UK. And then there’s the lurch to the right in France—with Marine Le Pen striving to look presidential and Nicolas Sarkozy adopting the Front National’s positions on immigration, Islam, and identity lock, stock, and barrel—the unprecedented scores of the Alternative für Deutschland in recent Länder elections (including in Berlin on Sunday), the surge of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the rise of right-wing populist parties in the Scandinavian countries, Law and Justice in Poland, et j’en passe. And lest one forget, there’s Vladimir Putin, who won a smashing victory on Sunday; Tayyip Erdoğan entrenching his quasi dictatorship; and Bibi Netanyahu and his hard-right coalition being quasi unbeatable… The political climate in Europe is worrisome—not to mention in states on its periphery—and there is no a priori reason why it should not be likewise in the United States, as the situation there is similar in so many ways to the one here in France. E.g. a couple of weeks ago I attended a speaking event (excellent) on the Front National’s voters, with three top academic specialists and a leading pollster on the panel. The FN’s voters, such as they were described, are identical—in sociological profile, political outlook, and general world-view—to Trump-supporting Americans. They are carbon copies. I already knew this but was marveling at it nonetheless during the event (where Trump’s name was not mentioned once). And the FN is now a permanent fixture in French politics and will aggregate a sizable chunk of the electorate for years to come.
On the Brexit referendum and the parallel with Trump, if a majority of the British electorate can vote for a measure with such objectively calamitous consequences and that is so objectively inimical to both the interests and standing of their country—and swallow the lies of the demagogic politicians and media organs that promoted this—a similar type outcome in the United States can, objectively speaking, not be excluded.
À propos, see the article in Vox (September 19th) by Zack Beauchamp, “White riot: How racism and immigration gave us Trump, Brexit, and a whole new kind of politics.” (h/t Bob B.)
On Hillary’s problems, what is preoccupying is the marked lack of enthusiasm for her among millennials, Latinos, and blacks (and particularly younger black voters). And all those tens of millions of $$ spent on ads over the summer in battleground states down the drain. And then there’s her doggedly high unpopularity, with her present favorable/unfavorable number being –13, which about what it’s been for most of the year. I was confident that her favorables would rise after the DNC, that she could maybe halve that number by now, but that has not happened. For reasons I do not comprehend, a very large number of people out there simply cannot stand her. Trump’s negative spread is wider, as it has been all along, but at a current –19 he’s closing the gap. His appalling increase in popularity is entirely due to Republican voters “coming home.” It has been my operating assumption that there would be far more Republican defections from Trump than Democratic ones from Clinton, but the gap is, at present, not that significant, with #NeverTrump Republicans—university educated, women—being at least partly cancelled out by working class Dem voters going for Trump. Heretofore recalcitrant Republican voters who still don’t like Trump—and even see him as temperamentally unfit to be president—will vote for him nonetheless, as (a) they dislike Clinton and the Democrats even more, (b) Supreme Court nominations override everything, (c) he’ll sign whatever bills the GOP-controlled Congress sends his way, (d) they assume he’ll be hemmed in by Congress, military, and other institutional actors, who will make sure he doesn’t do crazy shit, (e) like the vast majority of voters everywhere, they aren’t aware of how their country may be perceived abroad, what Trump will mean for America’s standing in the world, and don’t care, and (f) maybe he won’t be so bad in office after all.
But if Trump sticks to form and tries to rule as a caudillo, that will be fine with many of his voters too, as that’s what lots of Republicans want, and particularly the new voters he’s attracting. It is pretty clear that a certain number of Trump supporters did not vote in past elections, which is making me nervous about the polls and the accuracy of their likely voter screens. On this score, I am recalling an episode of the PBS MacNeil-Lehrer Report from the early-mid 1980s, with John Judis and Curtis Gans sur le plateau, the subject being some aspect of American electoral politics. Explaining the Democratic Party’s electoral problems of the time, Judis argued that there was a “hole” in the American electorate, that the low voter turnout rate in the US compared to Western Europe was due to the high rate of abstention by lower class Americans—the kind of voters who were the base of left-wing parties in Europe and would, if they participated in American elections, presumably vote Democratic in their large majority (and pull the party to the left on economic issues in the process). Gans countered this by evoking the “Mussolini factor,” saying that if large numbers of habitual non-voters entered the system, it would likely be in positive response to a knight-on-a-white-horse candidate, i.e. a potential strongman with an anti-elitist rhetoric who promised to kick ass in Washington and solve their problems. And make America great again while doing so.
Continuing in this vein, I am also recalling a political science type article I read some fifteen years ago on the structure of voter abstention in the US—constituting half the electorate at the time in presidential elections—in which the author (whose name I cannot recall; it may have been Gans or Samuel Popkin) divided non-voters into three broad categories: (a) the apathetic, representing some 40% of abstainers, who were not interested in politics, didn’t read newspapers, and knew little about public affairs; (b) the disaffected, representing 25 to 30% of abstainers, who did follow politics, had voted in the past but didn’t feel the two major parties or its current candidates spoke to them or addressed their concerns, and (c) the alienated, also some 25 to 30%, who were angry at the system and its politicians, whom they saw as corrupt (tous pourris), beholden to special interests, and in no way represented people like themselves. The author submitted that, in our increasingly atomized society, there was not much to be done about persons in category (a)—who in the past may have been brought to the polls by family members or institutions they were a part of (e.g. trade unions)—but that (b) and (c) could suddenly enter, or reenter, the system in response to a fresh, new, different type of candidate.
That candidate doesn’t necessarily have to be a Mussolini-type strongman: e.g. Obama, with his 69.5 million votes in 2008, manifestly attracted large numbers of habitual abstainers, notably Afro-Americans. But the one outsider candidate in the present era—until this election—who most clearly fit this bill—who was not necessarily a potential caudillo but promised to unilaterally clean things up in Washington—was Ross Perot in 1992, whose candidacy (independent, self-financed) caused turnout to increase five points over that of 1988, from 53 to 58% of the eligible electorate, with 13 million more voters casting ballots (104.5 million, up from 91.5 million in ’88; in 1996 it dropped to 96 million). The New York Times exit poll in 1992 revealed that 30% of Perot’s voters would have stayed home had he not been on the ballot (the rest splitting evenly between Clinton and Bush).
One other thing. Perot won 19% of the popular vote, which was five points over what the final polls projected. No one had him going this high. And Perot’s voters were not mobilized by a sophisticated GOTV operation or lots of campaign workers at the grassroots. Moreover, Perot didn’t even have a political party. It was all media and the force of his personality. Trump’s candidacy is, needless to say, a much bigger juggernaut—media and otherwise—than was Perot’s. Which is why I am nervous about this election and will remain so through November 8th. Repeating myself, I do think Hillary will win—there are too many structural factors working in her favor—but the new voters Trump is attracting and the mobilization problems in the Democratic electorate are making this election, as a well-known emeritus Harvard Law School professor wrote last week (h/t Marty K.), almost impossible to predict.
- The election all comes down to Pennsylvania. Whoever wins PA wins the nation. If Trump wins PA, it will necessarily mean that he has also won Florida and Ohio, plus held on to North Carolina, putting him over 270 EVs. If Hillary takes PA, she wins, as Trump has no realistic path to victory without it. FWIW, the most recent poll out of PA, released yesterday, has Hillary leading Trump by 9% head-to-head (pour l’info, it was conducted by Morning Call/Muhlenberg College, whose polls earn a grade of A in FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings).
- The favorable/unfavorable ratings are essential. If Hillary’s remains less negative than Trump’s and by at least several percentage points aggregate, it is exceedingly difficult to see how she can lose. In the nightmarish event that his negatives become less so than hers, she’s toast.
- If Obama’s job approval rating remains what it is today—50% aggregate—it is hard to see how Hillary loses. If it suddenly goes below 48%, then that won’t be good at all for her.
- The debates will be critical (duh). Hillary can only lose them by having a physical malaise on stage.
- Prediction: Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will do nowhere near as well as current polls have it. Johnson will not reach John Anderson’s 1980 score (6.6%) and Stein will not surpass Ralph Nader’s in 2000 (2.7%). This will benefit Hillary.
- The Democrats need to take back the Senate. It is essential. If Hillary ekes out a narrow win but the Senate remains GOP, her victory will be Pyrrhic, as she won’t be able to do a thing in office, including get any SCOTUS nominations approved. And the Repubs will be sure to make gains in the 2018 midterms.
- Borrowing from my August 7th post, if the race is still neck-and-neck into October, America’s “Deep State”—notably the military, intelligence, and foreign policy establishments—will pull out all the stops to tear down Trump, e.g. leaking his tax returns or other seriously damaging information. The American ruling elite will do all it can to ensure Trump’s defeat. And it will have the media on its side.
- The best sites to follow the numbers are Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium—N.B. its “Clinton Nov. win probability” up top—and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
UPDATE: On the uncertainty of polls, Nate Cohn has a post today (September 20th) in the NYT’s The Upshot page, “We gave four good pollsters the same raw data. They had four different results.”
2nd UPDATE: Paul Waldman captures the current political Zeitgeist in a commentary (September 19th) in The American Prospect, “The presidential campaign has descended into madness.” The lede: “As the birther controversy illustrates, Donald Trump seems to be dangerously immune from charges of hypocrisy, incompetence, or corruption.”
3rd UPDATE: John Judis, whom I referred to above, has a pertinent piece (September 20th) in TPM on “Two myths about American elections: Bigoted voters and Red vs. Blue states.”
4th UPDATE: My friend Stathis Kalyvas—who teaches political science at Yale and is one of the most brilliant social scientists I know, not to mention one of the top specialists of Greek politics in the world—left the following comment on my Facebook page in response to this post:
Despite the differences and the stakes, I have to say that the Greek crisis taught me a lot that I am reliving now…
I asked him to elaborate, so he replied:
I should write something thoughtful, but to summarize I would underline the social contagiousness of crazy theories, the impossibility of countering populists with reasoning and facts, the strength of the “fuck you” vote, the fact that people with grievances but comfortable lives are perversely willing to challenge social foundations because they feel safe enough to do so. All these makes bad outcomes almost a foregone conclusion…
5th UPDATE: Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman has a must-read article (September 20th) on the violent, irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton, “Hillary vs. the hate machine: How Clinton became a vessel for America’s fury.” The lede: “Decades of right-wing attacks turned a crusader of women’s rights into a major target of hate.” Three comments: (1) The article focuses on the Hillary hatred of the right but this is, as we know, very much present on the left as well—and which I continue to see almost daily on social media. (2) If the United States had French-style libel laws—not to mention British—many of the best-selling Hillary hate books would be hit with lawsuits and likely taken off the market. (3) The Hillary hate increases my sympathy for her and wish—independent of Trump—that she wins and decisively. The rage of the Hillary haters will fill me with great satisfaction.
6th UPDATE: Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka, writing in the NYT (September 20th), explains “What Hugo Chávez tells us about Donald Trump.”
7th UPDATE: I am taking the liberty of posting the Facebook status update (September 23rd) of an old friend from my Chicago days (1980s)—who has had a long career as a progressive political and labor activist and consultant (and holds a doctorate in political science to boot)—and who is my go-to person for analysis and insight on American electoral politics:
I am still confident. I ignore horse races. In the last two GOOD polls within two days Trump’s unfavorable rating has crept up, while even with her public illness, the emails and “deplorables,” her unfavorables have stayed the same. It is a race as to who ends the campaign as the least disliked by undecided voters, and if she is “less unpopular” undecideds should break her way. Can she win without OH and FL? Yes, as long as undecideds in the other leaning blue states break her way. The electoral map just stinks for Trump. Without gerrymandering we would have a Democratic House. It is still blue, and if those who were blue for Obama, or even 90% of them, vote again and stay blue, plus good turn out from newly registered Latinos and Puerto Ricans in the southwest and Florida, she wins. Peoples’ fave/unfave is becoming more settled, moving only a little, so she should seal the deal if she comes out of the debate as less of a liar than he is a jerk. She will be more informed; all she has to do is be reasonably likable, like she was on Jimmy Fallon, a recent high point.
I agree. The latest polls are upticking for Hillary. And Trump does indeed have a ceiling in the low 40s. Barring debacle (most unlikely) in the debates or some unpleasant October surprise, she should, as my friend says, be able to seal the deal.
8th UPDATE: The Washington Post’s “most read” article today (September 24th) is an interview with historian Allan Lichtman—who conceived the famous 13 “Keys to the White House” (which I had a post on during the 2012 election campaign)—who appears to think Trump may win (the headline of the article is misleading, in fact). In Lichtman’s surefire formula—it has apparently never failed—if 6 of the 13 keys are false, then the incumbent candidate, or candidate of the incumbent president’s party, loses the election. So far 5 of the keys are false, with one hanging in the balance; if that one ends up proving false, Hillary is doomed and Trump wins. The key in question is nº 4: “There is no significant third party or independent campaign”—with Lichtman adding, in the WaPo interview, that the third candidate must be anticipated to receive at least 5% of the vote. Lichtman says that Gary Johnson looks to be there, as his highest polling numbers have been 12 to 14%; Lichtman’s rule of thumb is that that such a poll number at this stage be cut in half, signifying that Johnson will get 6 to 7% in the end. Thus the 6th fatal key.
Three comments. First, Johnson’s average poll number is presently 8.5% at RCP and 8.6% at HuffPost Pollster. Divide either in two and Johnson is under 5%. Moreover, at no point has RCP had Johnson at even 10%; he briefly reached 12% at HuffPost in August but dropped back down. So Lichtman is off on this. Second, a question: should Johnson even be considered a “significant” candidate? The significant independent candidates in recent decades have been George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, and Ross Perot in 1992 and ’96. Wallace was, of course, a major political figure of the time. Anderson was high-profile throughout the ’80 campaign and whose poll numbers were sufficient to qualify him for the debates. And we know about Perot (see above), who also qualified for the debates (in ’92). Johnson has nowhere near the stature or media attention of the three aforementioned men. He’s the nominee of a political party that always runs a presidential candidate and who qualifies for the ballot in most, if not all, states. Johnson—who could walk through a busy shopping mall unrecognized anywhere in America outside New Mexico—is only polling well due to the peculiar, exceptional nature of this campaign. Which leads to the third comment, which is that Johnson is mainly drawing potential votes from the challenger party candidate, not the incumbent party’s: his support is coming heavily from Republicans horrified by Trump, not Democrats defecting from Clinton. So his notable polling performance should in no way be seen as a problem for the latter.
Conclusion: Lichtman’s 4th key is not false. At five false keys, Hillary Clinton wins.