America’s Cycles of Change

Trump Campaign Nears Point of No Return

Sat, 06 August 2016

The weeks following the conclusion of the two major political party conventions in the United States are usually the most decisive in the entire 10-month long national presidential campaign that starts with the New Hampshire primary at the beginning of February and ends with the final national elections in early November.

Over the past generation, repeatedly, the presidential nominees of both major parties have either achieved or failed to achieve national credibility among scores of millions of voters at their convention-showcased events, and have established decisive leads, or erased them.

These patterns then usually hold through polling day, tending only to be reinforced in supposedly unpredictable and surprise shifts of voters in the last days before the votes.

Judged by this pattern, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had a reasonable convention which at least benefited from not being the divisive and even violent fiasco that many were anticipating.

Hillary Clinton’s convention under performed in confirming her continued lack of credibility to the more than 45 percent of recorded Democratic primary voters who rejected her and supported Senator Bernie Sanders. But she benefited from a strong endorsement speech by President Barack Obama.

However, the week following the Democratic convention has been a catastrophe for Trump all the way and it was entirely his own fault. Trump’s personal insults to Pakistani-American Khazr Khan’s attack on him at the Democratic National Convention proved devastating to the national perception of him. Khan’s son, a US Army captain, was killed in Iraq.

At the end of the Democratic convention, I still gave Trump at least a one-in–three chance of winning in November. Now by any serious analysis, that estimate has to be reduced to one-in-five, at most a 20 percent chance.

The avalanche of polling date in the week following the Democratic convention is quite decisive and entirely consistent. Clinton is shown consistently with seven percent to double digit leads over Trump.

The most devastating finding from the CNN/ORC poll is that nationwide Clinton would get 47 percent of the vote against only 35 percent for Trump and an exceptional 13 percent for the otherwise weak and unconvincing “Republican lite “ Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld.

Clinton’s advantage is likely to become even more devastating as she is sensibly targeting Republicans turning away from Trump who are currently planning to vote, if at all, for Johnson and Weld.

The reason why this tectonic shift away from Trump to Clinton precisely at this time is likely to be lasting is that on three previous occasions in the past 28 years when Americans prepared to choose a new president rather than reelect or (in 1992) eject an incumbent, it was precisely this point in the campaign that saw the greatest and most important shift in national perceptions.

In 1988, Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis had a highly successful national convention – or so it seemed at the time – coming out of it with clear five to even double digit percentage leads of over incumbent Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush.

However, at the following GOP convention, and in the weeks immediately thereafter, the Republican campaign, masterminded by the late Lee Atwater, bombarded Dukakis as weak on foreign policy and crime, and especially embarrassed him on a single emotive issue – the pardoning of rapist Willie Horton.

Dukakis, a sheltered Massachusetts liberal, never had a clue what hit him. The Republican campaign against him using the Willie Horton issue began on September 21, 1988, more than six weeks before the election.

Dukakis’s point of no return – a defining “meltdown” moment – came on ABC’s “Nightline” when host Ted Koppel asked him what his gut reaction would be if his wife Kitty was raped and murdered. Dukakis replied with a bloodless, intellectual argument on why he still opposed the death penalty and Koppel famously responded, “You still don’t get it, do you, governor.”

Dukakis trailed Bush badly for the rest of the campaign and went down to a defeat of landslide proportions.

Similarly in 1992, challenger Bill Clinton at the Democratic Convention succeeded in defining Bush, after a remarkably successful first term that included presiding over the collapse of communism, as out of touch and elitist.

Clinton led thereafter decisively in a three way race benefiting from the campaign of H. Ross Perot and his victory never looked in doubt.

In 2000, incumbent Vice President Al Gore tailed Texas Governor George W. Bush in most polls by double digit figures as high as 15 percent until he announced his pick of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the first ever practicing Jew to be on a major ticket. Gore immediately soared into contention with Bush in national polls and stayed there, despite one major campaign bungle after another, down to Election Day.

Indeed, Gore won half a million more votes nationally than the younger Bush and the election eventually swung on a controversial Supreme Court decision over recounting the confused votes in a number of Florida counties.

In 2008, the decisive turning point in the campaign came within a few weeks of the Republican convention when the September financial meltdown began on Wall Street. Until that moment, Arizona Senator John McCain was plausibly in contention with the clearly inexperienced young Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

Contrary to later myth, McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate did not doom his campaign. At first, he enjoyed a dramatic surge among core conservatives across the country, though Palin later alienated independents disastrously, much as Trump himself is doing now.

What destroyed McCain’s prospects, and led to the greatest Republican defeat in 44 years since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 triumph over Senator Barry Goldwater (also from Arizona) was his total failure to respond to the start of the Wall Street financial meltdown., the greatest financial crisis to hit the United States in nearly 80 years since the 1929 Great Crash. Obama was able to present himself as responsive, concerned and understanding the issue. McCain never got to base one.

In September 2008, once again national perceptions of both candidates – especially condemning one in comparison to the other – congealed rapidly and remained stable and unshaken by almost all voters to the end of the campaign.

This is the fifth successive US presidential campaign I have covered professionally from beginning to end for large news organizations on three continents – including this one – and certain patterns become very familiar over time.

The two or three weeks after the end of the two national conventions are some of the most crucial times in the entire campaign.

The conventions present, they showcase their candidates, policies and messages to enormous national audiences for four nights in a row. They attack and seek to discredit each other. Most of all they seek to define themselves and redefine each other in the minds of the national political audience.

That is why the plunge in Trump’s voting numbers and the overwhelming public reaction against him since the end of the Democratic National Convention matter so much.

These perceptions matter. They last. The polling patterns we see emerging a within a week or two of the end of the election period tend to las to define and guide the rest of the campaign. It is very unlikely to see major changes in public perception occurring until literally the last days before the election.