Not much actually changed last week, though the gap between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton closed a hair in the RCP polling average. Alarmingly for The Donald, the LA Times/USC poll, which has consistently shown the tightest race, is opening more widely for Hillary Clinton.
The strategic situation the race is currently in can most accurately be described as “the crook vs. the lunatic.”
Are you voting based on a single piece of policy you heard? Likely not. Most people are just voting against the other person.
And in the scenario of power, especially given the visual imagery of nukes flying around, the crook is going to beat the lunatic every time.
In another scenario it might be different. You’d probably rather buy something from the lunatic. Maybe you’d even prefer to talk to the lunatic. But you wouldn’t prefer the lunatic to be given the reigns of power, now would you?
Whether this has anything to do with the truth is irrelevant. You will be steadily hearing something that continuously reinforces “crook” and “lunatic” in your mind from now until election day.
Which means that Trump is in serious trouble.
It’s amazing how fast it happened, but his failure to truly build a “team America” at his convention speech and all the unforced errors since, combined with the Democrats reframe on night 3 of the DNC, have severely harmed his campaign. He had his shot, and I thought he would take it, but he blew it. Maybe it was intentional (it often seems that way) and maybe it wasn’t.
Now Trump is boxed in and something needs to change. To throw the election the other way, one of two things need to happen:
1. Hillary needs to be branded as something that would lose to a “lunatic.” There’s very few things that are scarier than the thought of a lunatic in the Oval Office. Something could come out where she was directly bribed by a foreign government and she would still likely win (maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point). Maybe she could be turned into an even bigger lunatic, but there’s not much material to work with there. The recent offensives against her health where she’s basically turned into an unwell Alzheimer’s patient who’s constantly short-circuiting has the best chance of success, but it’s still debatable whether that’s scarier than a lunatic.
2. Trump needs to make himself a lot less scary and continuously defuse the “lunatic” label at every opportunity. If he does that, he wins, but that might now be impossible, and he’s rapidly running out of time. The recency effect was used pretty much in the opposite way that it should have been used.
Obviously, Donald Trump has the best chance of winning if he does both of those things.
However, none of those two things happened last week, which means the strategic situation hasn’t changed. All Hillary Clinton has to do is look sane at this point. Making your opponent look like a lunatic, and with his behavior continuously triggering the same confirmation bias in people, will do that.
Trump has tried new offensives and scored some minor victories, and Hillary Clinton had a very bad week last week, but her momentum is very large right now. Something else will need to happen to shift the race back in Donald Trump’s favor.
The White Knight Cometh!
All year, the GOP establishment has been looking for a white knight to rally “True Conservatives(TM)” to derail Donald Trump, even if that meant launching an “independent conservative bid” for president. Last week, much to my own surprise, someone actually decided to take the plunge, far too late to have any impact except as a way to status signal.
The chosen white knight who came forward is Evan McMullin, formerly of the CIA and a congressional policy wonk (that doesn’t actually serve in congress). This was basically another case of David French – a no-name “True Conservative,” except this time, the no-name “True Conservative” entered the race when the ballot deadline around half the country has passed, and other states are looming close. Whether he gets on the ballot in all but the easiest states is questionable. If McMullin gets on enough ballots and gets the right publicity, he could do what he was intended and pull votes away from Donald Trump, benefiting Hillary Clinton, but that’s questionable because it’s so late and he has no name recognition. I don’t expect this to have any meaningful impact.
Result (for Trump): Neutral/Inconclusive
“The Second Amendment People”
Watch this video and tell me what you hear.
Do you hear Donald Trump talking about political action from pro-Second Amendment groups, joking about calling for rebellion, or actually “calling for rebellion?” The media went into overdrive last week saying it was the latter. One English professor, now a lawyer, got anal retentive about the definition of humor, saying that it’s supposed to create in/out-groups, where the in-group supposedly finds the thought of rebellion somehow acceptable, even if Trump was “just joking” (note that in and out-groups are major concepts you’ll find in Stumped).
The result of this controversy was the media trying to pour just a little bit more confirmation bias onto Trump as unstable lunatic demagogue. Whether it succeeded at large or whether it just made people think the media more ridiculous is questionable.
Result (for Trump): Inconclusive
The Crook Continued
Note that I said from now to election day, you will continuously see something that reinforces Donald Trump as a lunatic and Hillary Clinton as a crook. So far, we’ve seen another attempt to tar Donald Trump as a lunatic. But not to be outdone, last week gave us more information we subconsciously use to tar Hillary Clinton as a crook.
The Clinton Foundation came under repeated scrutiny last week, as multiple emails were released suggesting some shady goings-on. It was also revealed that the FBI wanted to start an investigation, only to be shot down by the Department of Justice, which could easily lead one to conclude that the Clintons are above the law.
It was also announced last week that US Attorney Preet Bahara, who has made a name for himself here in New York in going after Albany’s corrupt culture (which led to his indicting and sacking from power two of the three most powerful men in this state in the course of a year), would be conducting what looks to be a separate probe with the FBI into the Clinton Foundation. Humorously enough, Bill Clinton appeared to get in on the act and revert back to his sabotage of Hillary by saying the FBI was full of bullshit about her.
The prospect of this changing the dynamic of the race is doubtful, because “lunatic Trump” seems to have stuck for now, and, as mentioned before, crook beats lunatic. If Donald Trump can steadily act in a way to make him seem as not a lunatic, this would be gold, but that appears doubtful now. Nevertheless, this was certainly a good development for Donald Trump.
Result (for Trump): Victory
Terrorist Dad Disavowal
At a Hillary Clinton rally last week, the father of the terrorist who shot up the Orlando Pulse nightclub in June showed up. He also appeared holding a banner supporting her on the news (and appeared illiterate while doing it). For possibly the first time, a Democratic candidate had to play the disavowal game, and Hillary Clinton said she didn’t want his support.
Aside from associating Hillary Clinton with terrorism, which is already a problem for her given her gung-ho attitude toward Muslim immigration and Syrian refugees, the sign this guy is holding also telegraphs the low-quality people the American immigration system is allowing into the country, which is a win for Donald Trump who’s signature issue is immigration.
Result (for Trump): Victory
A or B?
This week, Donald Trump drew a lot of controversy from the media by saying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the “founders of ISIS.” The response was livid, and the “fact checkers” once again proved their persuasion uselessness. I laughed when I heard it all, and Scott Adams described it best – this was a way that Donald Trump got you to think past the sale, and the media and the “fact checkers” cooperatively spread the message around for him at no charge.
What Scott Adams describes as “thinking past the sale,” I generally describe as an application of the domination of space. By saying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “founded ISIS,” Donald Trump moved the boundaries of the discussion and put them in the space where he wanted them to be, allowing him to further dominate the issue. Now because of his tactics, instead of asking whether Obama and Clinton had a role in the rise of ISIS, you’re asking what role they had in it. Did they actually found it, or did they merely help to create the conditions that would allow ISIS to thrive? Of course, Donald Trump used Hugh Hewitt to help him negotiate it down to the latter (most people just didn’t see it), and it’s plausible enough (after all, Obama and Hillary Clinton sent weapons into Syria and toppled Gadaffi in Libya) that most people will believe it.
Result (for Trump): Victory
This week, Hillary Clinton released her tax returns in an attempt to pressure Donald Trump to release his. Wait a minute, I thought that with all the pressure on him, Hillary would have released them earlier? Is this a case of special pleading?
Additionally, this move doesn’t move the needle at all because Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly trusted or known for her transparency. Donald Trump can just as easily say he’ll release his taxes when Hillary Clinton releases her deleted emails or the transcripts of the speeches she gave to Wall Street.
Donald Trump is now vulnerable on his taxes because the idea that he might be a Russian agent is sinking in for some, but this won’t help to create a victory on that front for the Clinton campaign.
Result (for Trump): Neutral
The Death of an Imam
Toward the end of the week, an imam was shot and killed in Queens. The investigation is still ongoing, but it hurts Donald Trump overall because he’s reflexively associated with anti-Islamic sentiment that could lead to violence.
Result (for Trump): Defeat
At the end of the week, a young black man, who was a gang member who’d stolen weapons, was shot by a black officer. The usual standalone complex Black Lives Matter narrative took hold before these truths came out and Milwaukee experienced two days of riots on Saturday and Sunday. During these riots, white people were supposedly being hunted for beat downs. Hillary Clinton seems to have wisely avoided getting involved in this one like she did after last month’s incidents, but Donald Trump already dominated space on this issue. This benefits him as the “law and order candidate.”
Result (for Trump): Victory
Donald Trump is still fighting, and he experienced some tactical victories last week, but they won’t be enough. He’s still boxed in, and nothing last week changed that. To win, a major breakthrough needs to happen which will make Donald Trump either not seem like a lunatic, or tars Hillary Clinton as something worse than a lunatic. A crook is not in this context. Donald Trump will likely need to find a worse linguistic kill shot and general campaign tone than “Crooked Hillary” as well as look continuously less crazy in order to win.
I’m finding the latter increasingly doubtful, but I’m willing to bet that Donald Trump is planning ahead and saving his bigger bombs for September heading into the first debate. Look to see him A/B test some new themes and linguistic kill shots to then bring the finished version into that debate next month. He’d just need to keep himself plausibly in the game and slowly make up ground until then.
To keep yourself in the game and learn how to A/B test linguistic kill shots, you should read Stumped.