Mike Pence, the "Early" Polls and Hillary's Fork in the Road Moment

A few words on Donald Trump's choice of Mike Pence as his running mate.

Let's face it, it was a no-brainer. Pence was the only viable option from an extremely weak field, and that's putting it mildly. Seriously, when your only competition is Newt Gingrich, a man who's burned more bridges in his life than Rommel during World War II, and Chris Christie, whose approval rating in his home state of New Jersey is hovering around the mid-twenties, you can be Dan Quayle and still be better.

But here's the rub. While Pence may not come with the usual assortment of bat-shit crazy baggage that Christie and Gingrich would've brought, that doesn't mean he's clean as a whistle, either. His biggest problem is his ideology. He's basically Rick Santorum only with a day job. You might remember that it was Pence who signed that ridiculous religious freedom bill into law last year and who earned the scorn of the business community in Indiana for doing so. He may be the darling among the conservative evangelicals, but he's hardly the Chamber of Commerce's favorite son.

And that could spell trouble for il Duce. Throwing red meat at Christian conservatives may net him a few extra votes here and there - though to be honest, I'm pretty sure that lot would throw down with Lucifer himself if it meant keeping Hillary out of the White House - but picking a candidate who bucked the business community is no way to ingratiate yourself with them. Quite the contrary. If one of your main arguments is that you're an expert on how to run a business, why would you pick a running mate who is perceived as inimical to that argument?

Still, all things considered, Pence's selection is ostensibly the safe move, which is unusual for a man whose idea of playing it safe is going ten minutes without saying something asinine. It also means that Clinton will likely opt for a more traditional (e.g., safe) running mate, like Tim Kaine.

Now, let's talk about these "early" poll numbers.

A lot of Hillary supporters are getting extremely nervous over a recent poll that showed Clinton and Trump tied at 40 points a piece. And a lot of Bernie supporters are saying, "we told you so." A little clarity is in order.

First off, it was one poll: CBS/NY Times. Another poll taken at virtually the same time by Marist shows Clinton leading by either 3 or 5 points, depending on which one you go with. And that brings me to the real crux of the potential problem for her. Let me explain.

Marist ran two polls: one with just Trump and Clinton; the other with all four candidates, including Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. In the national poll, Clinton was ahead by 3 points when paired against just Trump. But in a four-way race, her lead increased to 5 points. Just from those two polls alone, you'd conclude that Clinton fairs better in a four-way contest.

Unfortunately, that same same pollster ran a series of polls in battleground states that said just the opposite. It seems that in those polls Clinton doesn't do as well in a crowded field. For instance in Colorado, Clinton's lead over Trump goes from 8 points to 6; in Virginia, it goes from 9 pints to 7; and in Florida, it goes from 7 points to 5. The only battleground state that stayed unaffected was North Carolina, where she is surprisingly ahead by 6 points.

Again, I caution, it's way too early to put any meaningful weight behind these poll numbers. For one thing, the undecided vote is WAY too high to make them reliable. For another, these polls were taken immediately after the James Comey press conference, which no doubt had an impact in the responses. How could it not?

But the one thing I would be concerned about if I were the Clinton camp is the Gary Johnson effect. Typically, Libertarian candidates tend to siphon off more votes from Republican candidates than Democratic ones. From the state polling we've seen that doesn't appear to be the case here. Johnson appears to be hurting Clinton more than Trump. Why is that?

The reason, I think, might come down to the fact that Trump's support, such as it is, is pretty solid. By that I mean supporters will stick with him come hell or high water. He wasn't kidding when he said he could shoot someone and his supporters would still vote for him. So, if that is the case, the better Johnson performs in the polls, the more Clinton suffers. When you factor in Jill Stein's numbers, that means that Clinton has to fend off three opponents, while Trump only has to fend off one.

As more and more polling comes out, we should begin to see patterns emerge. Is the Marist poll accurate or an outlier? One thing is for certain. If we get to Labor Day and we still see Clinton being negatively impacted by the presence of both Johnson and Stein in the race, I'd be very worried. States like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Florida could well be decided by as little as two points. Let's not forget that Obama won Florida in 2012 by only one point.

I've had this sinking feeling that 2016 is shaping up to be a repeat of 2000. And these Marist polls do nothing to alter that perception.

And now onto Hillary's fork in the road moment.

The recent terrorist attacks, both in Europe and here at home, have presented Clinton with both a dilemma and an opportunity. For the last 12 months, Clinton has clung to Obama like white on rice on everything from healthcare to immigration reform. And it has helped here tremendously. Obama's approval rating - just north of 50 percent - has buoyed her own poll numbers somewhat. Yes, she's still underwater in the trust department, but her lead over Trump, such as it is, is owed in no small part to Obama's popularity.

But it's clear that when it comes to foreign policy, she is to the right of him. And despite what Trump and the GOP would have you believe, she is NO dove. She needs to play that up more and fast. Here's why. Trump is going to try and take advantage of these attacks by portraying Clinton as weak and an Obama clone. The only way to take away that argument is for Clinton to stand up and make the case for a more sustained involvement in the war on terror. No she doesn't have to go full-bore Trump. But she has to let the voters know - all the voters - that when it comes to defending the homeland, she will not be trifled with.

One of weaknesses of Obama is his inability - or is it reluctance? - to play to an audience. He's always thought it was beneath him. He doesn't seem to grasp that appearances are vital when it comes to politics. Trump is a showman who specializes in hyperbole and polls show that people who are frightened are far more susceptible to hyperbole. Clinton is one of the few politicians that grasps that reality and, like her husband before her, is no slouch when it comes to the crafting of words.

She should deliver a major foreign policy speech on what is going on in the world and how she will handle it as commander in chief before Trump ends up defining it for the electorate. She can frame the debate on her terms: strength through wisdom or something like that.

In a recent appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show, Clinton, I think, did a very credible job of responding to O'Reilly's questions about how America is going to defeat ISIS. The proof of this was in the fact that O'Reilly never once challenged her nor even disagreed with her. Actually, I was quite amazed at the cool and calm demeanor she showed given how hostile O'Reilly's audience can be.

If properly done, this could prove to be the turning point of the election. Poking fun at Trump's buffoonery can only get you so far. At some point, those undecided voters will make up their minds and decide this race. It won't be enough for Hillary Clinton to point out how unprepared Trump is for the presidency. She will have to make the case to the majority of the country that she IS.

See you next week in Cleveland.