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On the Campaign Trail

Ken Gude
Senior Fellow

The 2016 US presidential campaign has entered the home stretch with Hillary Clinton holding a meaningful lead over Donald Trump both nationally and in the battleground states. Trump has defied expectations both that he would pivot away from the incendiary rhetoric, xenophobic policies, and litany of personal insults that dominated his primary campaign and that a failure to do so would effectively end the race. The fact that this is even a contest, combined with Clinton’s own weaknesses and the intense scrutiny that accompanies any errors or problems in her campaign, has too often provoked panic among Democrats that Trump could win.


To be clear, Trump could still win. But it is unlikely, especially when taking a close look at the details of the race. The candidate ahead in early September has won the popular vote in the last eight presidential elections, with only Al Gore’s loss in the disputed 2000 election the only time in that span when the leader in early September did not win the presidency. Trump’s historic weakness with key constituencies, such as Hispanics, women, and college educated whites, make it extremely hard to identify a realistic path for him to win the presidency. And if the race is close at the end, that will magnify the importance of campaign infrastructure like field operations designed to get supporters to the polls, an area in which Clinton holds a massive advantage over the virtually non-existent Trump campaign organization.

It is certainly not a time to be complacent, however. The revelation that Clinton has pneumonia has sparked a new round of media criticisms of Clinton’s general lack of transparency. Such scrutiny only underscores what is now an undeniable sentiment among the American people that Clinton has a trust problem. Making matters worse, genuine health issues validate in a way what has been a relentless conspiracy theory popular in right-wing media that Hillary is gravely ill. That could provide a pathway into the mainstream debate for other absurd and despicable conspiracies pushed by prominent Trump supporters and the alt-right media.

Many observers, myself included, cannot comprehend how it is possible for a presidential candidate to survive these kinds of errors that would be fatal to any other campaign.

An additional concern is that there seems to be no error that Trump can commit that would disqualify him. Just in the last several weeks Trump has been forced to replace his campaign manager because he was implicated in a massive corruption scandal while working for the pro-Russian former Ukrainian prime minister hired a new campaign chair who has a history of allegations of sexual harassment and racism; admitted that he was getting high-level advice from Roger Ailes, who was just fired from Fox News after revelations he was a serial sexual predator and numerous allegations of sexual harassment; suggested that some of his supporters should assassinate his opponent; caused an international incident on his only foreign trip as the Republican nominee which forced the Mexican finance minister to resign and then bragged that this result made it a good trip tripled down on his anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric that caused several of his Hispanic advisory council members to resign in protest; was found to have made an illegal campaign contribution from his charitable foundation to the Florida attorney general at a time when she was considering prosecuting Trump University for fraud, which was dropped after the contribution and a subsequent fundraiser held at Trump’s golf club; publicly discussed his only classified intelligence briefing to date, claiming that he learned that the Intelligence Community opposes President Obama; called the current senior military leadership “an embarrassment to our country” and suggested he would purge the general officer corps once in office; the Trump Modeling Agency was found to have systematically brought underage foreign women into the United States to work illegally without proper work visas, grossly underpaid them, and charged exorbitant rents to live in properties the Trump Organization owned; described his military philosophy as “to the victor go the spoils” and reiterated that he believes the United States should have stolen Iraq’s oil; claimed repeatedly that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, which is demonstrably false, and cited as evidence an interview from August 2004, seventeen months after the war started; expressed a preference for Russian President Vladimir Putin over President Obama; said he was correct to say that the crisis of sexual assault in the U.S. military is the result of allowing women to serve in the military; and, accused the entire Department of Justice and FBI of being corrupt enterprises.

Many observers, myself included, cannot comprehend how it is possible for a presidential candidate to survive these kinds of errors that would be fatal to any other campaign. It makes the scrutiny heaped on Clinton for comparatively small transgressions, such as describing half of Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables” because of their racist, misogynist, or homophobic views, harder to understand and accept. It’s not that Clinton should not be scrutinized, she’s a major party candidate for the presidency and she has to be pushed and challenged. It is simply that the manner in which the two candidates have been covered has created an equivalence between Clinton’s flaws, which are real but not out of the ordinary for a politician, and Trump’s, which are unfathomable in a major party presidential candidate and objectively disqualifying.

There is no use in spending too much time complaining about the asymmetry of the candidate’s campaigns or how they are covered; the dynamic is set. The challenge for the Clinton campaign over the final weeks of the campaign is to stay focused on the ultimate goal of winning on November 8th and not get caught up in fights over how the two campaigns are covered. Hillary is winning and Trump is losing, and at least part of the reason that he is losing is because voters, including traditional Republican groups, are turned off by manifest unfitness for office. Even though it does not yet appear to have created the kind of deficit for Trump that most close political observers believe it should, it does not mean it is helping him win.

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