With Trump Untrammeled, Monday’s Debate is Hillary’s Make or Break Moment

Aaron Timms

[This is the September 23 edition of the Predata US Election Special, a newsletter sent to Predata clients. To sign up for the newsletter, email aaron@predata.com.]

  • Trump continues to dominate the headline digital campaign, race still tight in the battleground states
  • Slight upturn in Clinton’s digital momentum on the back of new “positive” turn to her campaign
  • Monday night’s debate on NBC will have a major influence on the messaging momentum of the campaign over the coming weeks
  • Outcome of the debate — who “wins” or “loses” — less important than the key moments and how each campaign repackages them for advertising and propaganda purposes
  • Expect Clinton to stick to the issues and avoid going low against veteran debate stage brawler Trump

1. THE HEADLINE CAMPAIGN: A FAINT GLIMMER OF HOPE FOR CLINTON

  • This week’s headline digital campaign score: Trump 88.7% vs. Clinton 42.9%. (Last week’s score: Trump 89.3% vs. Clinton 15.8%. See below for a fuller explanation of this and our other campaign scores.)
  • Donald Trump continues to dominate the conversation online about the election, but Hillary Clinton this week made up some of the ground lost over the last month.

Clinton’s upturn

  • Clinton’s return to the campaign trail following her pneumonia-induced pause last week has seen her attempt to roll out a newer, more positive message, rather than focusing simply on attacking her opponent. This approach has reaped promising, though still comparatively modest, early dividends: Clinton’s rally in Greensboro, NC on September 15, her first post-pneumonia event, was the leading driver of overall conversation online about the election for three days this week.

Trump’s return to trivia

  • Trump has worked hard since the appointment of Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager to focus more closely on policy issues. The scripted, more disciplined, “on-message” policy speeches he’s delivered under Conway’s guidance have succeeded in gaining considerable traction online, but this week Trump’s digital profile saw a swing back toward more trivial, scandal-driven affair: the GOP nominee’s interview with Dr. Oz and his press conference to disavow birtherism were among the top drivers of digital discussion of the election this week, while policy-oriented speeches and rallies drew less attention than they have in recent weeks.

Is the online public getting tired of Trump?

  • Trump gave a number of interviews on Fox News early in the week — to Media Buzz, Fox and Friends, and Bill O’Reilly — but they did not garner significant attention online. Trump has reduced the number of networks to whom he offers interviews in recent weeks — he’s pretty much a Fox News-only operation these days — but there are signs the online public is beginning to lose interest in these appearances, where he usually receives a fairly favorable audience.
  • Excluding the shared-podium pantomime with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in late August, Trump has not given a formal press conference since July 27. Combativeness is Trump’s oxygen and his press conferences and TV interviews, especially the hostile ones, have historically guaranteed him significant amounts of online attention: Trump’s unyielding belligerence in a hot-tempered back-and-forth is all part of his appeal. The decision to spurn unfriendly TV interlocutors and cease holding regular Q&As with the press may be working to Trump’s disadvantage. Who wants to see Trump being interviewed by people he agrees with?

Recent security scares and the polls

  • The bombings in New York and New Jersey have not had a significant impact — so far — on the online campaign, and it is still too early to gauge the digital effect of the unrest in Charlotte. Superficially the situation in Charlotte would appear to play into the hands of Trump, who has emphasized law and order as a key campaign theme, but he has to balance his response carefully against the need to boost his appeal among African-American voters.
  • National polls continue to send mixed signals: most of those released this week put Clinton ahead, but a Reuters poll has the race at a tie and the LA Times gives Trump the lead by 2 percentage points. The Electoral College math, overall, still favors Clinton, but the longer Trump dominates the digital campaign, the more problematic the math becomes for the Democrats.

Spotlight on the debate

  • Monday night’s debate, to be hosted by NBC’s Lester Holt, will be key. Clinton will likely stick to the issues and avoid going low against Trump (see Week in Review & Analysis, below).
  • The short-term discussion about who won and who lost the debate is usually quickly forgotten (and in any event, “defeat” in the first debate can be erased by strong showings in the second and third debates, e.g. Obama in 2012). What’s more interesting is how the little nuggets, vignettes and zingers from the debate are chopped up and repackaged by the campaigns in the days following for their own messaging and advertising purposes.
  • From Richard Nixon’s sweatstache and “There you go again” to Al Gore’s sighs and the “binders full of women,” the history of recent US presidential campaigns can be told via the clutch TV debate moments that turned the tide the way of the eventual victor.
  • If one of the candidates slips up in a major way (a gaffe, a gross factual inaccuracy, a loss of cool), that could become ammunition for the other side which, if deployed properly, may end up having a significant impact on the digital campaign in the race’s final weeks. We should have a sense for how well the post-first debate messaging from the campaigns is playing among the online public by this time next week.

2. THE BATTLEGROUND STATES: STILL DEAD EVEN

  • This week’s battleground state digital campaign score: Trump 73.4% vs. Clinton 79.1%. (Last week’s score: Trump 75.8% vs. Clinton 76.5%.)
  • Clinton continues to hold the edge in the digital conversation in and around the 12 battleground states, though the “lead” between the two campaigns fluctuates on almost a daily basis.
  • This reflects the tightness in the polls. Thirty-seven polls in individual battleground states were released this week, according to RealClear Politics; 20 of them had Clinton ahead. Last week she was ahead in only 15 of the 41 published swing state polls.
  • Early voting in North Carolina, a state Trump must win, has begun. According to MSNBC, of the 4,000 votes cast in NC so far, 42% were from registered Democrats and 34% from registered Republicans. This should offer some hope to Democrats as they attempt to regain the state, which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but swung the other way four years later: in 2012, at the same point in early voting, Republicans were running slightly ahead in ballots submitted, by 43% to 38%.
  • Predata’s signals show the Democrats comfortably dominate the digital conversation about the election in North Carolina, where Trump’s digital ground game remains disorganized and chaotic.
  • Trump’s digital campaign continues to be strongest in Florida and Pennsylvania, though this has more to do with the hyper-activity of his online surrogates than the strength of his official digital operation.

3. LIST OF THE WEEK

Videos produced by pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA since the July DNC that target Trump and his unfitness for office: 
Captured
Danger 
Our Country
Michelle
Watching
Pledge
I Love War
What We Stand For
Football
Shrinking Donald
Then and Now
Donald’s Pay to Play
Most Racist Person
The Most Racist Person

Videos produced by pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA since the July DNC that promote Clinton and her policy agenda: 
 —

4. WEEK IN REVIEW & ANALYSIS: CLINTON GETS POSITIVE. NOW, TO GET INSPIRING.

WORKING HARD. At a studio in midtown Manhattan one day last week, radio host and comedian John Fugelsang was attempting to articulate what it is about Hillary Clinton he likes. “People have been asking me this all year,” Fugelsang, who hosts the show “Tell Me Everything” on SiriusXM, said. “And you know what I like about Hillary? I like who she threatens. I like who’s threatened by her.” Comedian Barry Crimmins, who was in the studio as Fugelsang’s guest, started laughing. “You’re working hard,” he said. “You’re working very hard.”

Unlikeability has always been Clinton’s Achilles heel, and this explains why the Democratic nominee, for all her diligent attention to policy — Better Together, her main platform pamphlet, runs close to 300 pages, though this hasn’t stopped it from getting slammed in the reviews on Amazon — has been content over the last two months to let the race be fought on one issue, and one issue only: the personality of Donald Trump. Attacks against Trump and his unfitness for office have been the Democratic candidate’s primary campaign tactic since the DNC concluded in late July. From the evidence (see above), Clinton’s main Super PAC still sees Trump as the central — indeed, only — plank in its messaging platform. But to win the election, Clinton will need to do more than simply paint her opponent as a buffoon, or a bigot, or a national security liability: she will need to sell her own story and vision for the country’s future. Positivity will need to share the stage with negativity.

This week Clinton’s campaign finally, belatedly, began to realize that. In North Carolina, last Thursday, Clinton spoke of her beginnings as a young attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund, telling the crowd: “Standing up for children has been the work of my life. That’s why I do it and that’s who I’m in it for — to make life better for children and families.” Over the weekend the bombings in New York and New Jersey offered Clinton the opportunity to spruik her national security credentials; in recent days there’s been a rally in Philadelphia to “reach out” (in the hammily sincere lingo of the era) to millennials, and a speech in Orlando on the Democratic candidate’s vision for an “inclusive economy.”

Whether Clinton’s new positivity will be enough to turn around her low approval ratings remains to be seen. Most voters continue to see her as unlikeable and untrustworthy. The slight upturn in her digital fortunes over the past week will offer hope to the campaign that Positive, Issues-Focused Hillary can gain traction among the voting public. Monday’s debate gives her the opportunity to push this version of her campaign self further — and in light of the recent tonal turn to the Democratic campaign, we should expect that Clinton will keep the emphasis firmly on the issues on Monday night and avoid getting into personal attacks with her opponent. Going low will only help Trump, an irrepressible debate stage brawler with the notches of 16 GOP primary opponents on his belt.

Trump, for all Clinton’s modest digital gains this week, continues to command the greatest share of attention online about the election. This is still an election about Trump, and there’s no reason to think that Clinton’s mastery of policy detail will set the popular pulse racing, whether on the ground or online. Clinton’s positive new message is worthy, but it’s not yet inspiring. Even in its moments of greatest uplift, her campaign patter remains steadfastly downbeat, almost matronly: “When it comes to public service, I’m better at the service part than the public part,” she told the crowd in North Carolina last week, repeating a favorite line. Where Trump plays fast and loose with winning and the promise of a return to national greatness, Clinton sticks to her earnest furrow, emphasizing themes of service, the common good, and duty: Trump has the atheist’s love of enrichment, Clinton the sturdily Methodist commitment to doing what is right. While Trump was smiling and clapping through Don King’s bizarre, instantly viral, profanity-laced introduction speech at a church in Cleveland on Wednesday, Clinton was explaining to readers of the New York Times her plan to expand “Low Income Housing Tax Credits” — an important message, but a boring one. The contrast was revealing.

Clinton’s campaign hopes that the positive turn in her pitch to voters will be enough to swing the campaign’s messaging momentum back her way. But a positive message is not necessarily a compelling one; no one has ever won an election by the quality of their policy sheet footnotes. With the digital campaign still favoring Trump and polls continuing to send mixed signals, Clinton needs to make the electorate excited to vote for her. Monday’s debate represents an opportunity. Trump, with untrammeled command of the election stage both in the media and online, goes in with nothing to lose. Clinton has to make the case for why she should win. ⏮

Predata’s US election digital campaign scores are generated by computing the weekly, month-long correlations of Predata’s signals for Clinton and Trump to the overall signal for the US election, which is a composite of all the material in the individual candidate signals plus a selection of neutral/explanatory background material about the election online. These scores are not a prediction or a probability level of victory for the respective candidate on November 8; they are a measure of each campaign’s correlation to online conversation about the election as a whole, which can be used as a rough guide to which side is dominating, from week to week, the digital campaign. The scores are not polls, but they can offer a perspective independent of the polls, and the movements in similarly constructed scores have historically led swings in the polls (something we saw with Brexit). Since the scores are correlations, they do not need to sum to 100%. (A “score” of 49.83% is nothing more than a correlation of 0.4983.)

For more information on our US election coverage and analysis, contact Aaron Timms, Predata’s Director of Content, at aaron@predata.com.