In Final Days, Clinton and Trump Go Negative

In Final Days, Clinton and Trump Go Negative
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“Scorched earth” is how some of Hillary Clinton’s allies on Thursday described Donald Trump’s final days as a 2016 presidential candidate. “Nasty” was President Obama’s summary of the entire election, as he, too, threw some rhetorical accelerant on the contest while stumping for the Democratic nominee in Florida.

Even the launch of last-blast negative ads by both campaigns Thursday helped guarantee that America’s most venomous and lurid presidential election in modern history will slither to the finish line.

Clinton, sensing the fierce urgency of tighter battleground polls, abandoned thoughts of an entirely uplifting script in her final five-day sprint. While going high about her own presidential vision, she continued to go low about Trump’s.

In North Carolina, where Clinton believes African-Americans, women and younger voters could sway the contest for 270 electoral votes, she concentrated on Trump’s bumpy record on questions of race. 

“He has spent this entire campaign offering a dog whistle to his most hateful supporters,” the former secretary of state said. “He retweets white supremacists and spreads racially tinged conspiracy theories. And you better believe he's being heard loudly and clearly. Just a few days ago, and I want you to hear this because this has never happened to a nominee of a major party … Donald Trump was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Meanwhile, the GOP nominee, who barnstormed through four rallies Thursday, has been cheered by polls showing a closer contest in the wake of negative news coverage about Clinton’s emails, Affordable Care Act premium increases, and the late-breaking decisions by many GOP voters to back their party, despite misgivings about the nominee. In the RealClearPolitics four-way polling average, Clinton leads Trump by a scant two percentage points.

Trump is finishing the race the way many Republicans wished he could have run it from the start: fiercely on message and on offense.

Campaigning in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, the business mogul painted a bleak picture of what life and governance would be like under a Clinton administration. If elected, Clinton “is likely to be under investigation for many, many years,” he said, invoking a scenario of impeachment. “This is not what we need. This is going to be a mess for many years to come.”

Trump has largely adhered to his teleprompters and resisted controversial tweets this week. As Clinton campaigned a few days ago with Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe winner with whom Trump has infamously feuded, the GOP nominee focused primarily on higher costs for Obamacare and the revived FBI investigation into emails pertinent to Clinton’s private server. The campaign believes those issues bolster his closing argument that Clinton is corrupt and a vestige of old politics, while he says he’s an agent of change.

On Thursday, Trump pounced on a Fox News report citing sources that claimed the FBI is investigating possible pay-to-play allegations involving the Clinton Foundation. Other news outlets have reported heightened tensions between Department of Justice and FBI officials over the agency’s handling of the revived email probe and other matters. But the FBI has not publicly confirmed a formal investigation of the foundation. Trump claimed the Justice Department is likely to seek an indictment against Clinton, but there is no evidence to support that prediction under this administration.

While appearing more focused and on-script, Trump has continued to occasionally abuse the facts. He forecast that Clinton will be engaged in an “unprecedented constitutional crisis” and that the FBI’s email probe “is likely to conclude in a criminal trial.” But the FBI concluded earlier this summer that its probe was complete, and that no reasonable prosecutor would charge Clinton with a crime because there was no evidence of intent to break the law by the former secretary or her top aides.

Trump’s campaign released an ad Thursday titled “Unfit,” in which a narrator says Clinton’s emails were found on “pervert” Anthony Weiner’s laptop, referring to the former New York congressman. But the FBI has not said whether the emails discovered on the disgraced Democrat’s laptop were sent to or from Clinton, or that they contained any sensitive government information. Weiner’s estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a close Clinton aide, reportedly said she was unsure how communications that may have been hers or passed through her custody ended up on her husband’s computer.

“America’s most sensitive secrets, unlawfully sent, received and exposed by Hillary Clinton, her staff, and Anthony Weiner. Hillary cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation,” the Trump ad’s narrator intones. 

Trump repeated the ad’s claims during his address in Jacksonville. He also attacked Clinton on foreign policy, claiming “Hillary brought death and disaster to Iraq, Syria and Libya, she empowered Iran, and she unleashed ISIS.” The GOP nominee continued lashing his opponent during two subsequent stops Thursday in North Carolina, a must-win state where he is currently tied with Clinton in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

For the first time since her controversial address during the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump appeared on the trail in Philadelphia and delivered a more positive message on behalf of her husband, designed to appeal to women voters. 

“He certainly knows how to shake things up, doesn’t he?” she said during a prepared and much-previewed speech to a crowd in Chester County, a key Philadelphia suburb that swung just barely for Mitt Romney in 2012. Using a teleprompter, she spoke of her immigrant background, describing herself as an “independent woman” and a legal migrant to the United States from Slovenia.

Melania Trump said she would “advocate for women and for children” as first lady and identified bullying on social media as a concern she would address. "We need to teach our youth values: kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity. Our culture has gotten too mean and rough,” she said. While her first solo appearance was well received by the crowd, the tone of her remarks stood in stark contrast to her husband’s.

The rivals’ full-on attacks at the campaign’s bitter end are intentional and tactical: negative information that keeps Trump in the spotlight lifts support for Clinton among voters, according to polling and data analyses. In the reverse, Trump’s newfound discipline in avoiding unforced errors combined with Clinton’s troubles help boost his standing with some voters.

An October study authored by Geoffrey Skelley, the associate editor of University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s website Crystal Ball, found that “Clinton and Trump have the highest unfavorable ratings of any major party nominees in modern history,” which complicates life for each when they linger in the limelight for lengthy periods. Why? Because when they are leading the news, they are most often there because of predominantly negative media coverage. The spotlight, Skelley found, is dangerous.

Nonetheless, that fact has not curbed Trump’s tendency to taunt and criticize the press when he knows it pleases his supporters. During a rally in Florida on Wednesday, for instance, Trump singled out NBC News political correspondent Katy Tur for what he claimed was her network’s failure to report the size of his rallies, even though the campaign controls the camera setups and networks often show the crowds. 

At the same rally, Trump hinted at how his advisers are likely coaching him to resist such urges in the contest’s final stretch.

“Stay on point, Donald, stay on point,” the GOP nominee said, his hands moving up and down gently in the air. “No side tracks, Donald. Nice and easy."

At her North Carolina rally Thursday, Clinton pointed to Trump’s self-coaching with a sneer, telling her supporters that her rival could not change who he is at heart.

“Stay on point, Donald. Stay on point,’” Clinton said. “His campaign probably put that in the teleprompter.”

Obama offered another in a series of high-wattage endorsements to his former Cabinet secretary during Florida rallies Thursday. But like the Democratic nominee, he mixed the high with the low.

Obama assailed the GOP-controlled Congress for what he said was its devotion to gridlock and its disingenuous political motives, and he took on Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running to keep his seat in Florida after losing badly in the GOP presidential primaries.

“You are somebody who will say anything or be anything, be anybody just so you can get elected or cling to power,” the president said, pointing to Rubio’s opposition to Trump, followed by the senator’s subsequent reversal. (Obama is supporting Democrat Patrick Murphy for Senate.)

Obama conceded Thursday during his remarks to a predominantly young audience in South Florida that the presidential election has been so relentlessly caustic, it has turned some voters off. His goal at the rally was to inspire Floridians to vote, and like Clinton, his technique aimed to frighten them into rejecting Trump by Nov. 8, even if he failed to persuade them that Clinton is as outstanding as he says she is.

“You're out there and you're looking it, and you're saying, 'Man, this is really nasty,'” the president conceded.

“It’s tempting to want to not really focus on our government and our politics. But this election is critical. And the good news is, once you get past all the noise and all the distractions, and all the okey-doke, the choice could not be clearer,” he said.

“Donald Trump is uniquely unqualified to be president,” he added. “I’m not just asking you to believe in Hillary’s ability to change things. I’m asking you to believe in your ability to change things.”

It may have been the most positive message of the day: Voters will soon decide.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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