Where the Race Stands With 26 Days to Go

Where the Race Stands With 26 Days to Go
Rick T. Wilking/Pool via AP
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The past few weeks have not been kind to Donald Trump. Following the first presidential debate, which he is widely believed to have lost, he engaged in an extended fight with a Miss Universe contestant. During the second debate, he spent the first 20 minutes apologizing for his lewd 2005 comments recorded by "Access Hollywood," remarks that caused him to lose the backing of many in the GOP establishment. Additionally, he grappled with leaked documents suggesting he declared a near-billion-dollar tax loss in the 1990s (he appears to have acted legally, but the atmospherics are terrible).

Then came Wednesday's news -- allegations by two women that he had touched them inappropriately -- which the Trump campaign denied.  

The Republican nominee might not be in his current predicament had he performed as well in the first debate as he did in the second, but regardless, he now finds himself down 5.5 points in the four-way RCP Average.

If I thought this was going to be the last Trump revelation, I wouldn’t make too much of the latest tempests. After all, it isn’t as if Trump hasn’t been in this position before. In mid-August of 2015, he was down 14 points to Hillary Clinton in the two-way RCP Average; a month later the race was effectively tied. In late April, Trump was down nine points to Clinton; a month later they were effectively tied. In the aftermath of Trump’s comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Clinton’s lead ballooned to sevenpoints; a month later the race  again was effectively tied. After the one-two punch of the Democratic National Convention and Trump's fight with the Khan family, Clinton went up eight points in the RCP Average; a month later the race was effectively tied.

In other words, Trump has made up larger gaps in similar time periods in the past. If you look at the RCP Average, Clinton hasn’t so much surged as Trump has lost support since the beginning of the month, which suggests those voters are still gettable for him.

That is because the fundamentals of this race indicate it will be close. The second-term president with middling approval ratings, the modest growth, and the historic unfavorability of the two candidates continually exert gravity on the contest downward to a tie. When Trump is “best behavior” Trump, the race is competitive. When he isn’t, Clinton pulls to a lead. If Trump were to be “best behavior” Trump for the remaining four weeks and conduct himself in the third debate as he did in the second, he might close the gap again. Indeed, the NBC/WSJ poll released over the weekend actually suggests Trump made up some ground in the aftermath of the debate.

But I don’t think that will happen. For one thing, Trump feels “unshackled” (whatever that means), suggesting that he doesn’t want to be “best behavior” Trump.

More importantly, though, I don’t think Clinton and the Democrats will let him. Stu White, a good friend of mine from college who has gone on to become a military historian, brought to my attention an analogy that might be apt – the theory of how to “disintegrate” an army, by 19th century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. You don’t pound the opposing force incessantly. Rather, you operate in short bursts, allowing the army time to regroup, before pounding it again. The fighting forces won’t disperse, but they can’t get their footing either; you continue this strategy until nothing is left.

That’s what I think is happening to Trump, and what I anticipate will happen for the remaining four weeks. The Clintons are masterful manipulators of the media, and I suspect that every three or four days, a new bombshell will drop, each one a bit more powerful than the last. Maybe Trump’s supporters will regroup anyway, but I suspect this strategy will be successful. If I’m wrong, we could yet see a closer race. But I don’t think that is where the smart money is right now.

As for down-ballot Republicans, it puts them in a bind. On the one hand, it seems sensible for them to try and get out of the blast radius as best they can. This, of course, risks losing Trump voters’ support. On the other hand, as one of my friends was fond of saying in law school, “There’s no such thing as a lukewarm hell,” suggesting that since they have already attached themselves to Trump to some degree, they may as well hold on to his supporters and hope for the best. There’s no easy strategic choice for them; we’ll find out whether they make the correct one in 26 days.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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