Clinton v. Trump: Six months of surprises

Early national surveys show a double-digit lead of 54 to 41 percent for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. His negatives (56 percent) are high compared to hers (49 percent), and she runs much stronger among women, Latinos, African-Americans, and young people. But national surveys can be misleading, though, because they conceal important patterns at the state level. Polls in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania conducted by Quinnipiac University in May find close races in each state. In Florida, for example, Clinton held a narrow 43 to 42 percent edge over Trump. In Pennsylvania, she also led by 43 to 42 percent. However, in Ohio, Trump had a 43 to 39 advantage over her.

One of the most complicated parts of polling in 2016 is going to be gauging turnout among key groups. The Quinnipiac pollsters assumed a higher turnout among whites and a lower turnout among minorities, compared to 2012. So the conflicting results demonstrate how important it will be for each candidate to persuade prospective supporters to vote on Election Day. (It also shows how difficult accurate polling can be, as pollsters seek a turnout model that they believe will reflect on Election Day.) Turnout is always important, but given the polarized nature of the current electorate, it is particularly crucial this year.

The Clinton team anticipates she will need to spend around $1 billion in the campaign. There will be a larger number of states in play in the fall due to Trump’s unusual coalition—a political reality that will cost both candidates more money. Trump’s anti-illegal immigrant stances and sharp rhetoric on building a wall along the Mexican border means that some states such as Arizona, Colorado, and Missouri may be within the reach of Democrats owing to the large Hispanic populations there.

However, Trump’s strong support among white, working class voters suggests that he may be competitive in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota that have been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs and that Democratic presidential candidates have carried in the last few election cycles. He likely will force Democrats to spend money in states they typically have taken for granted.

The fundraising challenge for Trump as a billionaire is pivoting from his self-funding stance in the primaries, where he consistently touted his independence from special interests and ability to be independent due to his personal wealth.

In the general election, he will need to match Clinton’s fundraising and that will force him to rely on the same financial interests he has been criticizing for months. Look for him to raise money through the Republican National Committee and to have supporters who will set up a super-PAC in his name. He will need about a billion to keep up with Clinton.

The question is how voters will react to that financing shift on his part. Will he be able to turn to special interests or ultra-wealthy individuals without compromising the independent brand that he has carefully cultivated? And can he set up the fundraising organization to raise that much money in a period of six months? Will the traditional moneyed interests in the Republican Party happily donate to his cause or will they exude the same skepticism some in the party establishment have expressed?

Messaging is important in any campaign and the two presumptive nominees already are rolling out their key messages. Trump will remind voters of every past and current Clinton scandal from Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, and Vince Foster to Benghazi, the Goldman Sachs speeches, and her private email server. He will use these critiques to say she is unfit for office and cannot be trusted with America’s future at this volatile time in world affairs.

She will employ her criticism that he is a “loose cannon” who is too erratic to be trusted. She will hit him over his failure to release his tax returns, unwillingness to disclose the effective tax rate he pays, how he imported goats to two of his golf courses so he could qualify for an agriculture tax deduction, and why he pretended to be publicist John Miller in calls to tabloid reporters in the early 1990s.

Her argument will be that he is a little nutty and prone to rash statements and actions that will endanger the world. There will be shades of Lyndon Johnson’s fear-provoking attacks on Barry Goldwater in 1964 (perhaps a daisy-style ad c. 2016) and her husband’s dispatching of Ross Perot in 1992. She will play on popular perceptions that he is out of touch with ordinary people and needs to “come out of Trump Tower” and see how people actually struggle to earn a living. This is not going to be a “feel-good” campaign saying it is morning in America (a la Reagan in 1984) but a brass knuckles street fight among two skilled politicians, each of whom sees clear vulnerabilities in the opponent.

What could make this race (somehow) more unpredictable and volatile for each campaign is the possibility of several wildcards in the fall. The economy could weaken, which would cast doubt on Democrats’ stewardship of the issue that most concerns voters. The first quarter 2016 GDP numbers did not offer much comfort for Democrats on this front. A repeat of that poor performance in Q2 and Q3 would be major obstacles to a Clinton victory. It would reaffirm the Trump critique that Obama has been a disaster and America needs to turn in a very different direction.

A second wildcard would be an October terrorist attack in the United States or Europe. In fall 2015, Trump’s poll numbers were starting to drop and it looked like he finally would pay for his outrageous comments on many issues. However, after the Paris bombings and attacks in San Bernandino, Trump’s numbers came back and stayed strong on the Republican side.

It always is hard to gauge the political impact of a major terrorist attack. But it helped Trump last fall and played to his message that the world is a dangerous place and that America needs a strong leader to deal with terrorists and tyrants around the world.

A third source of uncertainty is the Zika virus that has unfolded in South America. If it arrives in the United States and causes political havoc the way the Ebola virus did in 2014, it would be problematic for Democrats. It would be easy for Trump to play on public fears about foreigners and disease, which is the way many past American leaders criticized immigration policy. That kind of development would enable Trump to knit together his anti-immigration, global chaos, and neo-isolationism arguments under one tidy bow.

On the other hand, there are fall surprises that could benefit Democrats. Trump could continue to demean women, insult immigrants, threaten world leaders, and usher in a landslide Democratic victory for president, the Senate, and the House. Demographers who have been saying for years that Republicans cannot ignore the rising Latino vote, the empowerment of women, and the growing liberalism of young people may turn out to be correct. Trump could end up being the last gasp of white America and the end of the Republican Party (in its current form) as a viable national party.

It seems apparent that 2016 is destined to become a decisive election. But given how unpredictable the last six months have been, it is hard to know whether the ultimate outcome will be a Trump victory, a Clinton landslide, or a global landscape that ushers in war, recession, or some other calamity. Rarely has a political year been open to so many different possibilities.

The only thing for sure this year is the importance of humility in anticipating the future. There have been many surprising developments in American politics and global affairs in recent years. We have seen the Great Recession, the rise of ISIS, billionaires running for office, a refugee crisis in Europe, and globalization coming under serious attack. The new constant on the contemporary landscape is change, and people should gear up for a wild six months to come.

The country and the world are on unfamiliar terrain on many fronts, and it is impossible to forecast how all of the possible developments will affect campaign 2016. All we know for sure is that many of the things political experts thought couldn’t happen already have taken place. We should not be so foolish as to think that our surprises are over.