Presidential politics has veered into post-Labor Day hysteria, where every poll, every candidate movement (cough, cough) is wildly over-analyzed.
Cable news and Twitter are perfect vehicles for these breathless hot takes, which tend to obscure the fundamentals of the race. As the owner of Inside Michigan Politics, I routinely get interview requests from reporters across the country (and occasionally the globe). I’m sure I disappoint some by failing to dispense a breathless “This will change everything” soundbite, but it’s my job to be a political realist.
Here’s what we know. The presidential race has predictably tightened both nationally and in Michigan. The post-convention polls showing Hillary Clinton with double-digit leads have disappeared. But the Democrat still holds a steady polling lead in RealClearPolitics’ national average and its Michigan average.
Naturally, we’ve all heard a lot about outlier polls because of media bias. That bias isn’t favoring Donald Trump, by the way.
It’s the (often subconscious) desire of reporters and editors to have an exciting race to cover. Otherwise, the blackness starts to descend, and you start questioning the meaning of your life. Devoting 14 hours a day to writing about highly probable outcomes is a joyless existence. (Believe me, I know. I used to cover floor and committee action for the Michigan Legislature every day).
Remember all the media hyperventilating in 2008 and 2012, even though political fundamentals favored two Barack Obama victories? But there were endless stories that something would rock the races –– John McCain suspending his campaign when the economy collapsed in ‘08, Mitt Romney’s first debate performance in ‘12, and various gaffes no one recalls.
Sure, it could be different this year. Trump is an unusual candidate with a penchant for saying outrageous things and pulling stunts, like a last-minute sojourn south of the border. We have apparent meddling in our election by Russia, an unfriendly foreign power, between Wikileaks and other email hacks. And there’s always the possibility of a game-changing domestic or world event.
But the economic and political fundamentals always favored a small Clinton victory, not a blowout. It should be said that Trump has, thus far, shown to be a particularly poor candidate, as he hasn’t consolidated Republican support as much as a traditional nominee would. His numbers with women, minorities and college-educated whites make victory virtually impossible, both in Michigan and nationally, unless they start to shoot up.
Trump also refused to set up a professional campaign apparatus for months after winning the nomination, like opening campaign offices in key states, hiring competent staff, getting a fundraising operation going, etc. Clinton’s operation, on the other hand, has been humming along since 2015 (and with far less drama than its ‘08 iteration).
It should be said that Republicans would be in a much stronger position right now with either fresh-faced Marco Rubio or experienced, steady John Kasich, both of whom hail from swing states. They would sport professional campaigns and know how to exploit Clinton’s weaknesses far better.
There’s also a popular theory on the left that Bernie Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton. (Some progressives on social media are currently reveling in “I told you so” mode, and seem to be touting positive Trump polls more than Republicans are).
But Sanders’ general election poll numbers were always artificially high. Clinton pulled her punches, so as to not alienate Sanders supporters. And Republicans were praying that Sanders would win, as they thought he was the feebler candidate, so they never piled on.
As a history major who grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, I believe that Republicans would have eviscerated Sanders as Chairman Mao in the first week of the general election. When push comes to shove, Americans will choose an authoritarian strongman over a weak socialist any day. And Sanders also couldn’t capture Clinton’s high-profile Republican endorsements like Meg Whitman and Carlos Gutierrez.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that the odds of a blowout presidential election nowadays are rare, no matter who the nominees are. We live in an era of negative partisanship --- where people’s political affiliation is defined by their hatred of the other party and its values. So many people will vote Trump, despite their many reservations, just because of their deep-seated loathing of Clinton and liberals --- and vice-versa.
One of the most predictive (and overlooked) polls is who voters think will win. And right now, they think it will be Clinton. I know that’s boring. I know that’s not what roughly 40 percent of people want to hear. But that’s where we are.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.