As I write this column, the presidential race is pretty much tied. Both candidates are stuck somewhere between the high 30s and low forties in national polls and, contrary to the views of some pundits, the states do not produce a clear winner just yet either. Yes, indeed, Hillary Clinton now “leads” in several battleground states, but these leads are miniscule, shrinking, and are not indicative of how people will actually vote because they are within the margin of error and too many voters are still undecided or choosing minor party candidates. Things are not entirely sorted out and too many voters distrust both major party candidates to offer us any real clarity.
And the further problem is that neither candidate has established any broad appeal among the undecided voters or among Millennials. Donald Trump is trying a new approach, at least for now, of staying on message, using a teleprompter, and laying off the over-the-top attacks against “crooked Hillary”. At the same time, he is still offering only a pro-forma level of substance and is eschewing detail, figuring that Clinton will just need enough rope to hang herself. In his recent appearance with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the best he could do about Syria and the war on terrorism is say his plan would be to “call for a plan in 30 days”. Not a winning strategy – unless the other side is imploding.
At the same time, Clinton is still dogged by her “damned emails”, to borrow a phrase from her Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders. But that issue has moved from “process” (why did you do it and why didn’t you follow the rules?) to “content” – the revolving door between the Bill Clinton Administration, the Hillary Clinton State Department, the Clinton Foundation, and donors, personnel, and the favors they all seek. With more content to be revealed in October, this just simply doesn’t help her campaign on bit.
But there is more going on than that. In a measure of just how polarized this electorate really is, both candidates now cavalierly characterize each other’s supporters in stereotypical ways that are troubling and no way to build a majority coalition. Thus for Trump, Clinton’s supporters are radical Muslims, women who bleed from whatever, Hispanics who are rapists and murderers, and liberals who hate this country’s past and future. That is so hard to take and it is the major reason that mainstream Republicans worry that he will further alienate and isolate the GOP instead of growing its base. The GOP has a lot to worry about just because of that.
At the same time, Clinton’s team and base supporters feel that Trump’s supporters are merely bigoted and stupid, sadly a typical liberal view of the white middle class. It is behind the many writings in recent years that suggest that all voters should be liberal, if only they weren’t so stupid, limited in their access to information, manipulated by demagogues, and not educated in the best colleges in the United States. (For example, see Thomas Frank’s What Ever Happened to Kansas? as just one example of such pomposity).
But Clinton herself provided an example of that sentiment this weekend when she said (not suggested but actually said) that Trump’s supporters were just “a basketful of deplorables”. And the effete, college-educated, and possessors of the real truth laughed and laughed at the fools on the other side. Where do I start? First, the candidates are supposed to be running to represent all of the people. This kind of talk just doesn’t work in a practical sense. If elected, does she have to work overtime to say she was just kidding or just too revved up in rhetoric? Second, it is plain wrong. Surely there are bigots among us, and even some dummies – but to paint with such a broad stroke is arrogant, foolish, and revealing of the lack of empathy of many of her own supporters. Remember Mitt Romney talking about “the 47%” who are essentially moochers? It certainly did not do him any good. In fact, my recollection is that it was fatal to his candidacy.
Yes, to her credit, Clinton backtracked – but she did not apologize. Arrogance means never having to say you’re sorry. This was a tad too revealing and a whole lot of troubling. And it could be another reason why this campaign is just too close to call.