Clinton Aims for a Landslide
“Don't think people are really grasping how plausible it is that Trump could become president. It's a close election right now,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver warned in a Friday tweet. This is mathematically true. The RealClearPolitics polling average when he said it had Clinton up only by 2.7 points in a two-way matchup, and 3.6 in a four-way with Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson. After CNN and CBS polls were released Monday morning, the race is even tighter, with Trump slightly ahead in the two-way race and Clinton's lead in the four-way down to just 0.6 points.
But what’s mathematically true for the moment doesn’t capture the full story of the race so far. The general tightening of the race is mostly because Clinton’s number has sagged in July, not that Trump has experienced a great surge of support.
In June, he was scraping bottom at 38 percent. After an initial post-convention bounce, he’s up to a less pathetic 44 percent. But that number ties his peak. Trump has never touched the 45 percent mark in the general election RCP average throughout the entirety of the campaign, suggesting he’s up against a hard ceiling, while Clinton has spent considerable time above it. Following Trump’s disorganized and divisive convention, a solid Democratic show this week that impresses both the bruised Sanders wing and hesitant swing voters could well get Clinton back into the upper 40s, positioning her for an outright majority on Election Day.
Forty-five percent, or a little less, could be enough to win if the third-party candidates maintain or increase their current levels or support. (Bill Clinton won in 1992 with 43 percent.) This is Trump’s hope -- a fractured electorate allows him to eke into the White House on a slim margin, maybe even without winning the popular vote. Trump need not appeal to a broad swath of Americans in this scenario; his current strategy of stoking white resentment could be enough. (Though to win a slew of close state contests, having more than a skeletal campaign organization would probably be necessary.)
Unlike Trump, Clinton is not trying to thread an electoral needle. To the chagrin of the left, she’s nodding to Bernie Sanders’ populist agenda but not basing her entire campaign around it. She tapped Sen. Tim Kaine despite his support for the “fast track” law designed to ease ratification of multinational trade agreements. She’s reached out to anti-Trump Republican hawks by embracing the philosophy of American Exceptionalism, declaring that “if America doesn't lead, we leave a vacuum, and that will either cause chaos or other countries will rush in to fill the void.” Her aides told the New York Times earlier this month that her governing strategy would be squarely based on bipartisanship, the antithesis of Sanders’ vision of steamrolling Congress via grassroots revolution.
All of that suggests she wants it all: a coalition of moderate Democrats, progressive populists, free-traders and military interventionists that could produce a double-digit landslide.
There’s no guarantee she will get it. Republican Trump skeptics may be more comfortable voting Libertarian than for the candidate they have gleefully pilloried for three decades. But she has more room for error. She’s competing for a broader pool of voters in a larger group of states than Trump. If she comes up a little short, she can still win with a comfortable margin.
Still, Clinton’s strategy is not without risk. She can be accused of trying to be all things to all people, turning off multiple constituencies and sinking the whole campaign. But in all likelihood, she would be accused of that anyway, having long been pegged as overly calculating. From her perspective, she might as well make the most of the hand she has been dealt.
So for much of the last 12 months, Clinton has been speaking to solely the Democratic electorate, sharpening her populist pitch while straining not to go farther left than she felt personally comfortable with or considered politically wise. For much of the last month, she has been road-testing general election rhetoric that, while not flip-flopping on policy positions, dulls that populist edge. Thursday’s convention address will be a culmination of this new phase, delivered to her biggest audience yet.
While it is far from unusual for a presidential nominee, after wrapping up the primary to, “run as fast as you can back to the middle” (in the words of Richard Nixon), Democrats disagree over who is in the middle. The Sanders’ faction insists that a populist edge is essential for winning the middle. Clinton believes that analysis is too pat, and limits the scope of possibility. To best prove her leftist skeptics wrong, she will need to artfully craft an address that connects with the broader electorate without leaving the convention hall cold.
The speech Donald Trump gave last Thursday was an amplification of his long-standing and oft-uttered signature positions and themes, with little designed to reach beyond his current base of support. The speech Clinton gives this Thursday will be more than the usual general election pivot; it will be nothing less that the beginning of a campaign aimed at landslide victory.