This election may be Hillary Clinton’s to lose, but ever-increasingly it is looking like Donald Trump’s to win. Going into the first debate next Monday, Clinton is still the favourite in the polls.
The majority of top pollsters have her hovering over Trump by a few percentage points, and the electoral map still swings in her favour. Indeed, in the next seven weeks Trump would have to pull off big upsets in states like Pennsylvania or New Hampshire, which, at the moment, seem comfortably seated in “blue” territory.
To swing these areas to the Republicans would be an uphill battle all the way. But Trump has shown he can do more than walk up hills. He can climb up mountains – usually mountains of his own making.
Just six weeks ago prominent pundits were declaring that Trump had blown his chances – permanently. The lacklustre Republican convention had people wondering if he had a presidential bone in his body; and then his comments attacking the family of captain Humayan Khan, a Muslim-American soldier who lost his life fighting in the Iraq war, reaffirmed to everyone that what Trump lacks in professionalism he will compensate for with deeply offensive behaviour.
But somehow, in some way, Trump is competitive again. More than just competitive – he is transformational, turning key swing states from leaning blue to leaning red, including Ohio and Florida.
No doubt Clinton’s health scandal has played a large role in Trump’s comeback. A Gallup survey published on Monday found that the four top words used to respond to the question “What have you read, seen or heard about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the past several days?” were most recently “health”, “pneumonia”, “sick”, and “issue”.
And the bad news doesn’t stop there for Clinton. Between 11 July and 11 September, the top assocation was “email” – with a one-week exception during the Democratic convention. Others included “lie” and “foundation” on repeat.
In comparison, the general public is picking up on what Trump says, not what others say about him. Top words linked to Trump included “Mexico”, “immigration”, “speech”, and “president”. Not all of those topics may have positive connotations, but it is a deeply important distinction nonetheless.
And just as the race is tightening, the first presidential debate strikes, which could very well shape and change the trajectory of the race. Both Clinton and Trump are likely to play to a populist agenda, promising greater spending, bigger government, and trying to paint themselves as the solution to America’s problems. But it will be their demeanour, their humanity, and their ability to relate to viewers at home that will determine which of them wins the debate. In all likelihood, both with struggle.
My suspicion is that viewership will be off the scale – both in the US and abroad. Of course, no one will be turning on their televisions to watch a clash of ideas; they’ll be tuning in to watch the ultimate reality TV showdown.
That’s what happens when the parties pick the two worst candidates around. The upcoming debates may turn out to be a sorry state of affairs from every political or societal perspective you can think of. But oh boy, they will be entertaining.