Analysis: How Hillary Stumbled and Trump Came Back

Posted: Sep 16, 2016 2:15 PM

With the US presidential election less than two months away, a remarkable thing has happened: Hillary Clinton has blown an early August lead of nearly eight percentage points in four-way polling. The national race is statistically tied, and all of the momentum in battleground polling has swung in Donald Trump's favor -- or at least away from Mrs. Clinton. What they were once boasting about as a blowout-in-the-making is now giving Democrats severe heartburn. Trump has claimed the RealClearPolitics polling average leads in Ohio, Florida, and Iowa, is within a point or two in North Carolina and Nevada, and has gained considerably in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia. (It's worth noting that Georgia, Missouri and Arizona are also unusually close, but if Trump is now very competitive in more traditional swing states, it stands to reason that similar momentum is helping shore up some of the red states into which Clinton has made inroads). How did we get here? The formula is fairly simple: An improved Trump, a scandal-plagued and listless Hillary, and a potential game-changing event.

(1) Since bringing on Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager, Trump has improved as a candidate. Conway and the new regime began by stopping the bleeding and cleaning up Trump's act. The Republican nominee no longer fills his days indulging every impulsive whim that pops into his head, which has too often fueled ugly and counter-productive distractions. Gone are the disgusting attacks on an Hispanic federal judge, the wildly conspiratorial musings about Ted Cruz's father, and the breathtakingly unseemly feud with a Muslim Gold Star family. Instead, we've seen a far more restrained Trump. A candidate who actually stays more or less on script, even reading entire speeches from a TelePrompter on occasion. A campaign that finally seems focused on defeating the Democrat in the race, instead of reliving and re-litigating the glory days of the GOP primary. A grown man who doesn't tweet out a string of juvenile invective every night.

Two episodes illustrate the "new" Trump: A successful visit to Mexico, during which Trump appeared reasonably presidential for the cameras, and his disciplined (with one slip) response to the potential game-changer we'll address shortly. If Trump can keep this up and take advantage of the bottom-barrel expectations he's set for himself with his behavior over the last year, he has a real chance of maintaining a positive trajectory in this race.  [UPDATE: We'll see how another round of birther controversy plays].  A national Quinnipiac poll released this week showed that a sizable majority of voters view Trump unfavorably, with a supermajority saying he's not qualified to be president. Yet he only trailed Clinton by two points in that survey's top line outcome. If he can demonstrate composure, and even a slightly improved grasp of issues in the upcoming debates, he could chip away at his biggest weaknesses in voters' minds. And that just might be good enough.

(2) Hillary Clinton had an abysmal second half of August and early September, facing headline after negative headline about her family's sketchy, conflict-of-interest-riddled "charity," as well as her damaging email scandal.  Her  team's collective instinct, as usual, has been to dismiss serious questions as conspiracies, and to lie, lie, lie.  This approach comes from the top.  The problem for her is that as more information is revealed -- in spite of her tireless suppression efforts -- she keeps looking worse.  Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, his foreign business ties are rife with murky and dodgy connections, and much of his so-called charitable giving appears to be a sham.  Despite all of that, Americans believe Hillary is less transparent than he is, and it's not even close:

Some lefties are blaming this disconnect on the media falling down on the job, as opposed to Clinton's own conduct and well-earned reputation. People really, really  don't trust her. She's built this all on her own:

It's almost as if voters have been watching Mr. and Mrs. Clinton operate for decades, and have noticed her special penchant for control-freak secrecy -- typified by wrongfully deleting thousands of work-related emails from the impropernational security-compromising email server she set up to avoid transparency and records-keeping requirements.  They keep telling us these are non-issues, witch hunts, nothing to see here, etc.  But endless revelations of previous untruths keep hurting her, and she's proven incapable of meaningfully apologizing or being honest.  Her campaign's run-out-the-clock strategy was foolish, even as she used time away from actual voters to raise enormous sums of money.  If there's one thing the Clintons do very well, it's operate at the intersection of big money and power.  And despite a cloud of influence-peddling accusations dogging her presidential bid, they show no signs of self-corrective behavior:

(3) The now-famous video of a woozy Mrs. Clinton bucking at the knees and collapsing forward at a 9/11 memorial service is unsettling.  It depicts an image that can't be unseen, and has to impact some undecided voters.  Allahpundit explained why earlier in the week: "Voters aren’t going to gamble on a candidate who seems to be chronically ill...Voters don’t like uncertainty. That may be the single biggest reason that Clinton continues to lead Trump despite having underwhelmed everyone. Trump is a loose cannon whose true political inclinations are murky; no one knows what he’d do if given real power. Clinton is dull, charmless, and corrupt — but predictable."  If she loses the mantle of being the safer, steadier option, she's toast.  As we mentioned earlier, doubts about her well-being are on the rise:

But what compounded the negative impact of her concerning medical incident was her campaign's opaque and shifty response -- both initially, and over the ensuing three days.  She had allergies.  Oh, she was overheated.  Actually, she had pneumonia for days.  It was contagious.  Never mind, it wasn't contagious.  She had the flu -- oops, we meant pneumonia.  It's exhausting.  So why might this episode prove to be a game-changer?  Because it melded widespread and long-held doubts about her ethical fitness with new and growing doubts about her physical fitness; a potential mega-narrative that reinforces multiple negative perceptions and concerns about her.  Bottom line: This race is a toss-up, with Mrs. Clinton still favored -- but less comfortably than ever.  The debates, news events, and get-out-the-vote operations will all matter.  Trump's work is hardly complete, but this confluence of events and trends has put him in a position that many thought impossible even five weeks ago: If he plays his cards right, he can win.