Supporters of Hillary Clinton have long feared the "Black Swan" -- that cataclysmic event which gives Donald Trump more than a puncher's chance to knock her out. But more discerning worriers conjure a perfect storm of circumstances which, coalescing at just the wrong time, dismantle her edge in the electoral college.
Two weeks ago the skies seemed clear enough. The month started with a more comfortable candidate taking questions from reporters, giving good and measured speeches, and dismissing the feverish rumors about her health with a few amusing quips. She was reaching out to disaffected Republicans while attacking Trump with an air of presidential confidence. The most concrete concerns focused on turnout and demographics and, even here, her superior ground game gave her several paths to 270 electoral votes.
Still, it was possible to imagine a demographic breakdown which, although unlikely, would place her on the razor's edge between victory and defeat.
In theory, Trump's gift for repelling blacks, Hispanics, women, young people and college-educated whites gave her a daunting advantage. So why were the polls tightening? The simplest answer was Trump's massive lead among whites without a college degree -- particularly working-class men. Here, Trump's attacks on free trade and immigration, and promises to preserve entitlements, gains him a larger and more loyal following than Mitt Romney enjoyed in 2012.
True, this demographic is shrinking as opposed to those where Clinton leads. This gives her the potential to overwhelm Trump's narrower base. But, in itself, changing demographics means much less than intensity of support -- who actually shows up to vote. Thus a gifted pessimist can imagine a scenario where, despite her organizational advantages, turnout goes absolutely haywire.
Start with what appears to be a passion gap. Polling shows that over 60 percent of the registered voters who support Trump are following the campaign closely, and over 90 percent say that they are certain to vote. Clinton voters are less attentive -- 45 percent -- and a full 20 percent are less committed to voting. Thus polls of likely -- as opposed to registered -- voters erase Clinton's edge.
There are reasons to question this model, and it overlooks the distribution of votes in the electoral college. Still, to win comfortably Clinton must reassemble the Obama coalition: the minorities and young people -- otherwise disinclined to vote -- who turned out to elect and reelect America's first black president. So far, it seems, she is falling short.
Obama is working this demographic hard, and the Clinton campaign is deploying Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to help. But millennials, particularly blacks but also other minorities, seem less drawn to Hillary Clinton than to the president, and young African-Americans are harder to reach than their parents and grandparents. The question is less who they vote for than whether they vote at all.
A depressed turnout among her potential supporters would jeopardize Clinton in crucial swing states where the race has tightened, leaving her more vulnerable to defeat. And a less enthusiastic voting base leaves her vulnerable to unforeseen events -- as this weekend's bombings reminded us yet again.
Even so, to have a chance of winning, Trump needs to turn out a bunch of less educated white Americans who almost never vote. Here, too, passion is important, and events may matter -- these otherwise disaffected people have to believe that Trump can win and that, as president, he would be a human Powerball ticket, transforming their lives for the better. While a massive influx of new voters seems unlikely, it is not inconceivable -- as Trump's recent rise in Ohio suggests.
Still, this alone is not enough. Trump also needs more Republicans to come home -- including suburban and college-educated whites. To some degree, polls suggest that this is already occurring. Indeed, given that our politics are polarized, our candidates polarizing, and our information compartmentalized, the grip of old loyalties will only intensify. But to garner all the Republican-leaning but wary voters he needs, Trump needs to look normal or, more accurately, to create the illusion of normality.
Given that the expectations for Trump are so low, in such a permissive environment he might be deemed the "winner" if he simply completes most of his sentences.
Finally, there is the impact of third-party candidates -- Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Trump not only needs them to outperform expectations for such political outliers, but to drain disproportionate support from Clinton. And, as of now, polls suggest that third-party candidates are hurting her more than Trump. The question is how many, and how much.
But suppose all that happens: overwhelming blue-collar support for Trump; depressed turnout for Clinton; a host of new Trump voters; a massive restoration of party loyalty among Republicans; and third-party damage to Clinton in key states. Further assume that virtually every important event between now and November breaks Trump's way -- including, contrary to right reason, the debates.
It then becomes possible to imagine a Trump electoral college victory, of necessity based on winning Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and, least likely, Pennsylvania. Or even that nightmare of improbabilities: a 269-269 electoral college tie. That would throw the election into the House of Representatives, which could give us President Trump.
This is the sequence of horribles that worries Democratic pros. For with the economy still flagging for too many Americans, the GOP should have the advantage of a "change election." What they need is for their candidate to become thinkable for a sufficient plurality of Americans.
This is why thoughtful Democrats have started sweating the polls, near-even despite an overwhelming advertising assault by the Clinton campaign. They fret that all the negative media about emails and the Clinton Foundation, however skewed, is tarnishing the positive image of Hillary Clinton which emerged from her convention.They wonder if her campaign has focused too much on denouncing Trump instead of inspiring voters. They fear the unknown which is yet to come.
Then stuff started happening.
The first warning shot was fired by the moderator who couldn't shoot straight -- Matt Lauer. During back-to-back appearances at a forum devoted to military matters, Lauer consumed much of Clinton's time aggressively re-litigating the email controversy. In embarrassing contrast, he allowed Trump to deliver a series of lies and idiocies with his usual bluster, largely unimpeded by any references to reality.
This drove home some pitfalls awaiting Clinton in the "debates" -- a word to be used advisedly. First, the quality of discourse depends greatly on the skill and resolve of the moderator. Second, absent a determined interlocutor to call him to account, a self-assured ignoramus like Trump can appear "presidential" while reciting nonsense. Given that the expectations for Trump are so low, in such a permissive environment he might be deemed the "winner" if he simply completes most of his sentences.
Then Clinton made an unforced error which confirmed the existence of a double standard -- one for Trump, the other for everyone else. Speaking at a donor event -- ever a fallow ground for folly -- Clinton tossed half of Trump's followers in "the basket of deplorables" -- the "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it." A pretty effective list of adjectives if directed against the man himself. But against a chunk of the public, not so much -- at least if you're running for president.
Such verbal slips are nothing new. Obama described a Republican base "clinging to their guns and religion"; Romney told a gaggle of rich folks that 47 percent of their fellow citizens were moochers. They both paid -- Romney in particular, because it fit his caricature as a heartless plutocrat.
To some degree, so will Clinton pay. For those Democrats keeping score, it was a reminder that this year's playing field is far from level -- Trump spouts far worse things with such metronomic regularity that nothing he says seems to stick. Except, ironically, to Hillary Clinton.
Potentially more worrisome was her literal stumble at a Sunday event to commemorate 9/11. On Friday, it transpired, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia. Given the rigors of campaigning, this was no surprise. But her decision to "power through" her schedule without disclosing her illness led to a ruder surprise -- an alarming piece of film followed by several hours of delay before the campaign fronted her pneumonia.
This created two problems, both predictable. For a moment, at least, it fueled all the health hysteria fomented by the Trump campaign -- including that she is suffering from cerebral damage. More lasting, it fed the usual trope about Clinton's lack of "transparency."
Her campaign has put out more health information -- which, along with steadiness during the debates, should help put this to rest. It also appears that, as he did with the aptly-named Dr. Oz, Trump will continue to vamp about his own superlative health, rooted in the benefits of Big Macs and insomnia. Still, this incident was another unpleasant reminder that, in presidential campaigns, surprises happen -- whether or not provided by the Russians in October or, as just occurred, by terrorists from New Jersey. And it kept her off the stump for a few precious days.
As vexing, for once Trump did not stumble over himself to squander an advantage. His response to Clinton's illness was, for him, positively demure. Instead, almost like a normal candidate, he seized on Clinton's "basket of deplorables" to deplore her condescending cruelty to Americans who long to make their country great again.
Smart -- this no doubt energizes his base and, quite possibly, could rally more nonvoters to Trump. Those "Deplorables For Trump" t-shirts are on their way. And the last thing Democrats need is a deepening class war with blue-collar whites -- they've been on a wrong end of this one for years.
Perhaps fearful of humiliation, Trump has allowed his new campaign team to impose greater discipline. He is hewing more to prepared texts; blurring some of his most controversial positions; veering less into his own grievances. His attack lines, however outrageous, are more focused on Clinton. And he is finally up with attack ads of his own, placed strategically instead of at his whim. The Clinton camp can no longer count on Trump to help them -- at least not quite so often.
Still, late last week, Trump provided fresh evidence of his own transcendent squalor. With chilling carelessness, he falsely accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to "destroy" the Second Amendment, and suggested that her Secret Service protectors "disarm" so that we could "see what happens to her." This followed the latest episode in his five-year history of spearheading the birther movement -- a "press conference" which spotlighted his own mendacity and, more important, renewed fundamental questions about the media's responsibility in covering his campaign.
Pressed by his brain trust to at last abandon birtherism, Trump created drama by promising a major announcement. He then kept the media waiting for an hour, tying up cable news outlets, before appearing to promote his latest hotel. He capped this with a 30-second statement that he now believed that America's first black president was born in the United States.
He did not explain how, after years of falsehoods, he had now divined the truth. Nor did he apologize. Instead, he praised himself by offering still more lies: "Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it."
It is not hyperbolic to suggest that, on matters of policy, Trump is a crank candidate -- Lyndon LaRouche with money.
In fact, the Clinton campaign did not indulge in birther rhetoric. Its principal agent was Trump himself. Nor, despite his statement, did he accept Obama's birth certificate when the president made it public -- to the contrary, he questioned its validity. Never once, until last Friday, did he disown any part of the racist lies and insinuations which paved his entry into political life, and inspired the widespread belief among Republicans that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim.
For once, the combination of his contempt for truth, and for the media, inspired a swift reaction. Several cable commentators expressed embarrassment that he played them; major newspapers documented the litany of statements promoting birtherism which showed Trump, yet again, to be a liar. And, in the wake of this performance, important outlets -- particularly the New York Times -- analyzed the impact on our politics of candidate whose recourse to lies is so comprehensive and unconstrained. Here, as well it should have, the press at large refused to serve as conduit for a shameless and amoral con man.
The unanswered question arising from this incident is whether the media will, at last, cover Trump with the sustained rigor his candidacy deserves. For the Clinton campaign, this is perhaps the biggest worry of all -- not simply that the media scrutinizes Clinton much more harshly, but that it slights substance in favor of superficiality, relieving Trump of the in-depth appraisal his candidacy is due.
Examples abound. We know that Trump admires Vladimir Putin. But what more do we know about this worrisome subject -- including, as but one example, his financial ties to Russia?
Thanks to the Washington Post, we know that the Trump Foundation is a funnel for giving away other people's money, including through illegal campaign contributions. But when will the press call out Trump for his unsupported assertions -- widely reported without criticism -- that the Clinton Foundation is a criminal enterprise awash in bribery?
And what about "transparency" writ large? We hear that Clinton's health scare intensified her problems in this area. But what of the obvious truth that Trump is, by far, the most comprehensively secretive presidential candidate in modern history, concealing his tax returns, his business dealings, his sources of financing, and his supposedly massive -- and quite possibly fictitious -- charitable contributions?
It is not simply that the media narrative has created a false equivalency. It has given Clinton's areas of opacity, though far less than Trump's, a disproportionate share of coverage.
But another problem for the Clinton campaign is the media's tendency to elevate transparency over substance.
It is not hyperbolic to suggest that, on matters of policy, Trump is a crank candidate -- Lyndon LaRouche with money. Never has a major party nominee been so inexperienced, uninformed, behaviorally erratic, intellectually dishonest, and pervasively untruthful. His ideas about the economy, foreign policy, and national defense are routinely inconsistent, contradictory, incoherent and tinged with nonsense from the fringes of political thought.
His statements on taxation are, in the main, self-cancelling gibberish. On the day of his birther announcement, Trump backed away from a promised $1 trillion tax-cut for small businesses, before his campaign assured one interest group that Trump was still behind it, then promised another that Trump was not. In the last year, he has praised and denounced Janet Yellen and the Fed so many times that but one thing is clear -- he has no grasp whatsoever of monetary policy. As for critical matters of science, he is an utter crackpot, whether the subject be global warming or vaccination.
And what of counter-terrorism? Trump's renewed denunciations of Muslims, intemperate attacks on Hillary Clinton and promises to be tough may resonate with voters, especially in the wake of the bombings in New York and New Jersey and the stabbings in Minnesota -- the kind of unpredictable occurrences which worry the Clinton campaign. But it is not sufficient for the media to speculate about the electoral impact of such events. The real question is what Trump's "toughness" actually means in terms of policy and effectiveness, and how this compares to Clinton's proposals to combat terrorism at home and abroad.
The fact that, unlike LaRouche, Trump is a major party candidate whose entertainment value provides the media with millions of eyeballs means that -- unlike LaRouche -- he could actually become president. Thus what he proposes to do as president is of the gravest consequence, and should be to those who cover him. And if Trump is the proverbial naked emperor on matters of policy, that must be rigorously explored.
But there hasn't been nearly enough of this -- and likely won't be.
Why? There are lots of reasons, some rooted in institutional self-interest. But one of the most pious -- and bogus -- excuses comes from the public editor of the New York Times, Liz Spayd.
The media's reluctance to critically examine Trump's policy positions, she suggests, stems from the standards of objective journalism. Those who claim that the media is mired in "false equivalency" between Trump and Clinton are calling for "a partisan explanation passed off as factual judgment." Thus the media should not be concerned that coverage of Clinton's emails is excessive, lest they go down the "slippery slope" of covering the emails too little.
To say the least, this is problematic. To edify Ms. Spayd about where her own slippery slope is taking us, by way of grotesque exaggeration, I offer this fictitious German news story from 1933: "While Herr Hitler's statements about population control seem ill-considered, the appearance of the possibility of the potential for a conflict of interest on behalf of Mayor Schulz is equally troubling."
My serious point is straightforward -- both candidates' statements about policy should not only be reported, but analyzed and dissected with bipartisan rigor. Nonetheless, in Spayd's view, what critics "really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates."
Really? Or do they simply think that the media should be something more -- and better -- than a megaphone for unexamined claims on issues of the utmost public importance. Fairness in journalism should not mean a grant of substantive immunity to any candidate, passed off as objective journalism. Objectivity is different than vapidity.
Yet here we are. And so we await the first debate, perhaps the single most important moment of this campaign. As much as on the candidates, its outcome depends on whether the moderator, Lester Holt, asks Clinton and Trump the hard questions a president must answer.
For the candidates, that's only fair. For the rest of us, it's essential.