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Published On: Fri, Jun 3rd, 2016

One mistake at a time: how Hillary Clinton could lose to Donald Trump

ANALYSIS

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Washington: Hillary Clinton is not a loser. But getting to the White House is more about precisely where she can win – which homes, streets and blocks – when Americans vote on November 8. Can she inspire the voters she needs in a handful of “swing” states to do the right thing by her?

Clinton’s supporters try to explain away a frightening downward spiral in poll support to the extent that, for now, this is a neck-and-neck contest between her and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Arguing that the ongoing Democratic primary battle is a drag on broad support for Clinton, they claim that Trump’s campaign has “evolved”, allowing him to command the national stage as the GOP gets on with an ungainly effort to unite behind his unconventional candidacy.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters during at the Sacramento International Jet Centre in ...

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters during at the Sacramento International Jet Centre in California. Photo: AP

Now that we’re almost done with the primaries and the contest for convention delegates, attention shifts to the Electoral College, which comprises 538 electors apportioned among the states based on population and from whom a candidate needs a majority of 270 to secure the presidency.

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National opinion polls miss that street-by-street essence of American politics. And, according to a commentary in The New York Times, too many of this year’s polls and the media’s breathless treatment of them have been “cringe-worthy”.

The polls are daily fodder for networks that demand a continuing sense of campaign momentum. But if a national poll moves on the strength of an uptick in support for Clinton in the states of New York or Vermont, of if Trump surges in Oklahoma or Wyoming, it amounts to a waste of campaign energy and resources – because the respective candidates already know that in the absence of cataclysmic upheaval, they have those states in the bag.

Hillary Clinton calling Donald Trump "dangerously incoherent".

Hillary Clinton calling Donald Trump “dangerously incoherent”. Photo: Bloomberg

So, great and all as opinion polls are in sensing a national mood, it is to the maths of the Electoral College that we must turn to see how this slugfest is likely to play out. The campaigns will go through the motions of running “national” campaigns and the US will be embraced, coast to coast, in rhetorical flourishes that will or will not warm their hearts – but Hill and Dill need to move voters in just a handful of states.

Until just weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that Clinton had the presidency in the bag. Back then, national and battleground state polling translated to Clinton winning all 29 states and districts won by Obama in 2012 with North Carolina as a bonus, giving Clinton a whopping 347 Electoral College delegates to Trump’s 191.

When The New York Times factored in a 5 per cent shift in support for Trump in each state, which certainly has already happened in national polling, the New York mogul picked up Florida, North Carolina and Ohio – but he still lost to Clinton in the Electoral College, 285 to 253.

Protesters against Donald Trump chase a man leaving a Trump campaign rally in California.

Protesters against Donald Trump chase a man leaving a Trump campaign rally in California. Photo: AP

It took the factoring in of a 10 per cent shift to Trump, which currently is within the realms of possibility in national polling but perhaps elusive in the vital swing states, for Trump to win – throwing to Trump five states that Mitt Romney lost in 2012. They would be Iowa, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire, for a 305 to 233 vote in Trump’s favour.

Clinton, no doubt, is sick of warnings, dire, salutary or otherwise. But this week Politico magazine had another caution for her and her campaign’s seeming obsession with national demographics: “Demographics are not destiny. In fact, they can be a disaster waiting to happen.”

Hedging only slightly, Politico goes on: “It’s a long way to November and Trump could always self-destruct. But he probably won’t, and 2016 is shaping up as a contest that a careful Clinton campaign can easily lose, state by state, even as she piles up the popular vote in California and other sure-win places.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton acknowledges supporters in Columbus, Ohio.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton acknowledges supporters in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: AP/File

This is the context in which a stark contrast in campaign style emerges: Clinton articulates a strategy based almost entirely on demographics, targeting big national constituencies one by one – women, Latinos, African-Americans, millennials. But, as Dan Balz observes in The Washington Post, Trump seems oblivious to this kind of needlepoint nonsense.

Sure, says Balz, Trump has a core constituency: white voters who didn’t go to college.

He writes: “But through the primaries, his appeal was cross-cutting, something that surprised and befuddled his opponents. Trump cut into the evangelical vote in ways no one had predicted. He did well among very conservative republicans, among somewhat conservative Republicans; and among the party’s moderate block.”

Donald Trump answers questions during a news conference in New York.

Donald Trump answers questions during a news conference in New York. Photo: AP

In an exercise of pundit daring, Nate Silver’s respected FiveThirtyEight number-crunching site took a punt in mid-May, wagering that the whole multibillion-dollar venture that is Election 2016 could come down to how a handful of people in Pennsylvania feel when they get out of bed on election day – about five months off.

In 2012, Obama held Pennsylvania by about 5 per cent – that’s about 300,000 votes in a country with a population of about 300 million. Replicate that on Election Day this year, and a tiny one-thousandth of all Americans will anoint either Trump or Clinton.

The elevation of Pennsylvania to “tipping point” status – the point at which Trump would secure the presidency as his wins were tallied from states that were most-easy to most-difficult to win – is based on a shift to the right by Pennsylvania in a state-by-state analysis of voting data over 20 years.

Protesters against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump climb on a car outside campaign rally in San Jose, ...

Protesters against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump climb on a car outside campaign rally in San Jose, California. Photo: AP

Working against Clinton would be:

  • the local economy (economic confidence is lower than the national average and Trump’s “jobs, jobs, jobs” pitch appeals to a big blue-collar contingent);
  • demographics (as sixth-oldest of the states, lots of angry old white men, not overly educated);
  • and voting laws (other states have become more Clinton-friendly through electoral reform).

Setting out what he describes as the “clear path” by which Clinton could lose, Politico analyst David Bernstein writes: “The cold math of a potential Clinton defeat is not to be found in national polls, but in the Electoral College – and within each state’s unique demographics and culture.

Supporters clamor to shake hands with Hillary Clinton in Salinas.

Supporters clamor to shake hands with Hillary Clinton in Salinas. Photo: AP

“Trump won’t dramatically remake the political map, but he doesn’t need to. He just needs to squeeze a little more out of certain voters in certain states, while Clinton draws a little less.”

Bernstein’s list of Clinton errors that could tweak those local outcomes in Trump’s favour includes:

  • Taking Hispanic enthusiasm for granted: Look at Florida, where Democrats are hugely confident, but Hispanic support for Clinton is five points less than it was for Obama in 2012, and while Obama had a 285,600-vote advantage among Hispanics over GOP contender Mitt Romney, Obama carried the state by just 73,000 votes. Use Obama’s Florida figures as a template for 2016, and Trump prevails over Clinton.
  • Alienating young voters: The big millennial turnout for Obama in 2008 was a one-off and their more recent political indifference could cost Clinton in student-heavy states – including swing states such as Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia. Clinton must win back the young – in the Iowa primary, 84 per cent of under-30s voted for Sanders; and between 2008 and 2012, Obama lost 30,000 young votes and he held Iowa by just 90,000 votes. On that arithmetic, Clinton would be chopped liver. It is the same in North Carolina – in 2008, Obama won 368,000 young votes to hold the state by a nail-biting 14,000 votes; in 2012, he lost one-third of those young votes, and Romney romped home with a 92,000-vote margin.
  • Letting establishment Republicans find another place to go: By going too far left in the primaries, Clinton dampened her appeal to the GOP’s “Never Trump” wing – and her likely smaller share of the disaffected Republican vote could be crucial in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and maybe Maine. A poll in Ohio where Trump and Clinton have to contend with competition from Libertarian and Green candidates found that it was Clinton who took the bigger hit, not Trump.
  • Fumbling the trade/jobs issue: To the extent that Trump has policies, his “we’ll bring the jobs home” rhetoric plays hugely well in the Rust Belt states: Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota. As president, Clinton’s husband signed the most hated of the free-trade deals; as a senator, Clinton voted for them; and as secretary of state she championed them. All that is why Sanders defeated Clinton in the Michigan and Wisconsin primaries.
Trump supporters and bikers at a Rolling Thunder rally in Washington, on Sunday.

Trump supporters and bikers at a Rolling Thunder rally in Washington, on Sunday. Photo: AP

Bernstein concludes: “If Clinton pushed away some of her potential supporters; fails to energise others to vote; and fires up Trump’s base by pandering to her own – well, she just might be able to make the numbers work out for him.

“If he does pull off the election of the century, Trump’s path to 270 Electoral College votes will begin with 164 practically in the bank, from 21 solid-red states generally considered sure things for the Republican nominee. [But] Clinton could push more than enough additional states onto Trump’s side of the ledger – Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan – one mistake at a time.”

Allocating Trump an Electoral College majority of between 274 and 338, he spells out the “Trump can win” reality of this campaign: “Trump survives a Latino surge in the south and west; Clinton fails to bring home young voters in the south-east and Midwest; Libertarians give Trump a foothold in the north-east; the Rust Belt puts a nail in the coffin – and with somewhere between 274 and 338 electoral votes, Donald J. Trump becomes 45th president of the United States.”

Supporters shake hands with Hillary Clinton in Salinas, California.

Supporters shake hands with Hillary Clinton in Salinas, California. Photo: AP

Clinton will get the Democratic nomination. But when the primaries are done and dusted, what shape will she be in as she embarks on a hard-slog march towards the White House – against this wily opponent who, seemingly, goes unpunished by the electorate for his vague policies that shift with the breeze.

Will she get the same consolidation, or bounce, in the polls as Trump did on becoming the presumptive nominee? Will uniting her party be any tougher, or easier for Clinton than it has been for Trump? Can she bring sufficient Sanders supporters on board to make a difference? And does she get an additional lift as an unusually high rate of undecided voters make their call?

Will any lift in poll support for Clinton amount to a timely whack for the insufferable Trump?

An anti-Trump protester hold a Trump campaign hat that has been set on fire as protesters and Trump supporters clash ...

An anti-Trump protester hold a Trump campaign hat that has been set on fire as protesters and Trump supporters clash near in San Diego last month. Photo: San Diego Tribune/AP

It’s worth casting back to this point in the 2008 campaign – a certain Hillary Clinton was still in the primaries race; she defeated a guy by the name of Barack Obama in the California primary and in five more of the last nine primaries.

Obama emerged triumphant, from the primaries and the general election, in which he won the popular vote by a margin of about 4 per cent.

The question is this: is Clinton, at the end of her long career in public life, as good as Obama was at the start of his? Does her insistent appeal to be a first – America’s first female president – have the same excitement that turbocharged Obama’s appeal so early in his public life, to be a first – the first African-American president of the US?

Is Clinton a match for Trump’s Dr Feelgood blather – usually unexplained, mostly un-detailed and almost never costed?

Or does she die in a Pennsylvania ditch?

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