The Year of the Reset

Every presidential election has its moments when the campaigns reset. Momentum surges eventually peter out and the other side regains its footing. Huge leads are often wiped out as the race tightens. Sometimes (1988) an early lead by one side – Dukakis – turns out to be an inevitable win by the other – Bush. Typically, though, candidates that jump out to early leads hold that lead right into the election. This has been true since LBJ crushed Goldwater in '64, the exception being the aforementioned election in 1988. Usually the only question is how wide the margin will be for the victor. Reagan mauled Mondale in ’84 and Bush eked out a narrow win against Gore in 2000.

This election year has had more resets that I can recall. The first reset was when Donald Trump clinched the GOP nomination and pulled into a tie with Hillary Clinton, who was still embroiled in a bitter Democratic primary battle with Bernie Sanders. Then, when Clinton clinched the nomination, she jumped out to a lead. Then came the party conventions. Trump got his bump – albeit a small one. Clinton then got her convention bump, which proved to be far bigger. Trump had a number of bad missteps over the next two weeks that allowed Hillary to pad her lead to 8 points in most polls. Pundits were beginning to talk about a Clinton landslide in November.

Then came the current reset, which as it turns out was a two-part event. The first part was inevitable. The huge bump that Hillary got from her convention began to recede, as all waves do. The polls started tightening in late August. A once imposing lead became a more realistic one. Then came the events of the last week. Trump for his part managed to go several days without making a spectacle of himself, and Clinton had the whole pneumonia brouhaha.

There was also the issue of her “basket of deplorables” comment that some say factored into the slide. I’m not convinced it had the impact some say it did, but let’s say for the sake of argument it did. What we now have is a race that is as tight as it has been since both candidates clinched their respective party’s nominations.

The RCP average shows Clinton with a narrow 1.1 point lead nationally in a four-way race. She continues to hold a lead in the electoral college, but her margin of error is down significantly. The no tossup map shows her with 294 votes, only 24 above the minimum. Yes, she still has more paths to victory, but suddenly Trump’s path is not so imposing. We now have a horse race, meaning it’s anybody election to win.

If you’re the Trump campaign you should be ecstatic. Only four weeks ago your candidate was on life support and many Republicans were urging the RNC to pull its funding and give it to the down-ballot candidates. Now victory seems more than just a pipe dream.

If you’re the Clinton campaign you should be worried. I wouldn’t panic just yet, but it’s clear that both the candidate and her campaign have badly played the events of the last couple of weeks. If politics has taught us anything it’s these two things: 1. Voters have very short memories; and 2. Optics is everything.

The great concern was that Trump might do the impossible: grow up and become an adult. For the time being he appears to have done just that. History tells us, however, that this act is temporary, lasting sometimes a day or two. This is by far the longest stretch he has gone without making a fool of himself, and many voters are falling for it.

Regarding the optics, it’s time to admit the obvious: Hillary sucks at it. Unlike her husband Bill, who was all about optics, Hillary could screw up a sunset. The shortcomings that led to her downfall against Obama in ’08 and allowed Sanders to hang around as long as he did this year are coming back to haunt her but good against Trump.

Okay, so now what? As the old saying goes, no sense crying over spilt milk. What’s done is done. How does team Clinton recover? Thankfully, she’s still ahead. Things could be worse. She could be behind. And who knows, by this time next week, she might well be. But as bad as things may seem, all is not lost. 

For one thing, since Hillary has been sidelined in New York with pneumonia, her surrogates have been filling in admirably. President Obama – you know the guy with a 53 percent approval rating – has been stumping for her. And, as he has been want to do, he’s been trashing Trump relentlessly. Joe Biden has been doing his part. Indeed, Hillary can thank her lucky stars she’s a Democrat. The Party is blessed with a very deep bench and they are all doing their best to pull up the slack.

Another thing she should be grateful for is that she still has a superior ground game compared to Trump. It’s looking more and more like turnout is going to decide this election and, if that’s true, that bodes well for her in November. And then there’s the matter of waiting for Trump to resume being Trump. Inevitably, he’s going to resort to his familiar patterns of behavior. He can’t help himself; it’s who he is. Personally, I’m impressed he’s lasted as long as he has. Most four year olds can’t go a day without acting up. Trump has gone a whole week.

The first debate is scheduled for September 26, just over ten days from now. History shows us that this is the point at which most of the electorate will form its opinions of the candidates. I would respectfully disagree. At this point I think most people have already made up their minds about these two candidates. The debates will offer little in the way of persuadable information. 

But what they can do is allow one candidate an opportunity to redefine him or herself. Mitt Romney tried that in 2012 in the first debate with Obama in Denver. It almost worked. Romney did a one-eighty in front of millions of viewers. Sadly for him, he couldn’t keep up the charade and Obama won reelection. My fear is that Trump could pull the same stunt in the first debate. Hillary must be ready for this. She can’t allow him to get away with the old switcheroo.

But I keep getting back to a point I made in an earlier piece. It isn't enough to simply bash Trump as the Clinton campaign has done; they must make the case for why she is the better choice. And that is where they seem to be stuck. Her poll numbers have tanked primarily due to the fact that you can only beat a dead horse so many times. 

Hillary Clinton has an incredible resume and an incredible story, but neither is getting through. As soon as she gets back on the trail - today was supposed to be her return - she needs to start letting America know about both. Obama can't do it for her; neither can Biden. She and only she can do it. She's been a doer most of her life; now she has to be a teller. That's how campaigns are won.

What's happening here is no different than a hockey team with a three-goal lead giving up a couple of third period goals. Yes, it's now a closer game than they'd like it to be, but they're still ahead. They must remember that and not panic. Stay on message. Remind the voters that she has the better policy proposals, she has the superior temperament, she will protect women's rights, gay rights, voting rights, the environment, healthcare reform, the Supreme Court, etc.

She's still the odds-on favorite to win this thing. But she and her campaign will have to work their asses off to make it happen.

* An earlier version of this piece said the first debate was scheduled for September 23. It's really scheduled for September 26. The correction was made.