An Update on the Campaign

What the heck is Trump doing?

Last week’s talk of a Donald Trump surge has already, in just the course of a week, turned into the talk of his plateau. In what appears to be a common pattern of this campaign, Trump was yet again unable to seize his momentum in any meaningful way that came off of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark and growing concerns about her health and transparency. While the electoral map looks unchanged from last week, with Clinton still ahead but Trump keeping the race competitive, national polling shows that whatever Trumpmentum that there was, and there was indeed Trumpmentum, is gone. One major indicator of this is the LA Times/ USC poll, which has consistently shown Trump with the biggest lead out of all polls, in part because of their non-traditional polling style. Last week, he was lead Clinton by an average of 7 points. Today’s poll has him up 4, while all others have a low single-digit lead for Clinton.

Rather than moving swing voters to his side, Trump has begun to consolidate Republican voters who planned on supporting Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, or just not voting. Meanwhile, millennials, whom Clinton needs to carry convincingly to win the election, are still not warming up to her. I, along with most political observers, have believed from the start that third party candidates like Johnson and McMullin would not play a meaningful role in the election, and that while I personally am planning to vote for McMullin, I have constantly predicted that, in the end, Johnson would never get a significant share of the vote, and barring some big surprise endorsement McMullin probably won’t register even one percent of the vote nationwide. Most disaffected Republicans in the end will still end up hopping on the Trump Train when faced with the possibility of having four more years of a Democrat in the White House.

With that being said, the main question I ask about the last week of the campaign is, what the heck is Trump doing? While his campaign is still leaps and bounds ahead of where it used to be, and there are signs that he is finally building a ground game and at least competently handling messaging, he is still lagging far behind Clinton, and any dreams that his team may have about a sudden surge of white voters coming out in droves to support him will be vastly outweighed by Clinton’s far-superior campaign organization. On television, Clinton is dominating Trump, who is virtually non-existent on the airwaves. While many, myself included have questioned the effectiveness of campaign ads in this election cycle, there are no doubts that the Clinton campaign and her allied super PACs have produced noteworthy and convincing spots, and I do believe that when swing-state voters are bombarded by ads questioning Trump’s commitment to veterans and painting him as unfit and unstable to lead, without any Trump rebuttal, that it can and will make a difference.

Meanwhile, another misfire was the Trump campaign’s effort to quash the birther controversy once and for all in a bizarre press conference at his new D.C. hotel. If anything, it did just the opposite. One good thing they did was keeping the media waiting throughout almost the entire press conference, live-streaming military people praising Trump in front of a national audience. I admit, that move was great. However, whatever good that did was quickly overshadowed by Trump’s quick, and I believe pathetic, denunciation of the claims he had made continually for years that President Obama was not born in the United States with a vague and meaningless statement. This was followed by hours upon hours of blistering media coverage, most notably on CNN, blasting his statement and highlighting how he himself clearly played a large role in fueling this controversy to begin with.

If this was any other campaign, I would have been baffled by how bad the timing of this announcement was; right in the middle of an apparent surge in support. Who in their right minds decided that, while so much negative press surrounding Clinton’s health and questions of transparency continued to topple on top of her, it would be a good idea to try to put to rest an old controversy by re-igniting it. It seems to have been a common theme of the Trump campaign, that every time something goes wrong with Clinton, they do something equally bad or worse to turn the negative spotlight back onto them. Trump did a great job staying quiet over the weekend when Clinton’s health problems were thrust into the national spotlight, but as we know, all good moments for the Trump campaign tend to falter quickly. This trend has been something that his new campaign team has been unable to stop, and unless they can keep Trump under control for the remainder of the campaign, it is unlikely they can win.

Trump, although he often doesn’t act like it, I assume wants to win now that victory seems to be within reach. The question now is, does he want to do what it takes? Trump right now is in a very similar position that Romney was in before the first debate, and next week, we shall see if Trump can beat the expectations and out-perform Clinton. If he is able to retain what people like about him — for example, his tough talk persona — while still coming off as serious and capable of leading the nation, he could see a surge in support. But in order to maintain it, he must invest in running an actual campaign. He has to consistently run a normal amount of ads in swing states, have a busier schedule targeting states that actually matter, and dedicate massive resources into Pennsylvania and Michigan; he must take one or the other to have a chance to win, although Pennsylvania seems to be the most promising out of the two. Someone on his campaign needs to take his phone away and manage his social media accounts so that they can actually present a serious, issue-focused message, not going on another infamous late-night Twitter rants.

Next week has the potential to determine who will win the election. Trump has the ability to either keep this race in contention, or to revert back to his old ways and let Clinton gain a significant, and most likely insurmountable lead for the remainder of the campaign. Both campaigns need a boost, as the run-up to the debate will likely continue to show a plateau in the polls barring any surprises that come up in the next few days. The boost that results for the debate winner will likely be enough to carry them to victory; as the election gets closer, more and more voters will make up their minds, solidify their support of a candidate, and thus the next two debates will likely be too late. We have consistently underestimated Trump throughout the entire campaign, but the debate on Monday, and what his campaign does immediately after that, maytruly be the defining now or never moment for him. The question is if he has it in him to defy expectations once again.