The Remaining Set Pieces of This Election Favor Clinton

Earlier this week the folks at FiveThirtyEight gathered for a chat on the question: “What Could The Polls Be Missing?” They discussed five different hypotheses, but one of them captured something important now that we are 38 days from the end of this election season.

Hypothesis #4 : The polls are underestimating Clinton because the remaining set pieces of the campaign — the things we know will happen — play to Clinton’s strengths, all else being equal. The remaining debates, mostly.

They went on to discuss the fact that the debates showcase Clinton’s competence (and Trump’s incompetence) as well as the fact that the next debate will be a town hall format. Paul Waldman wrote how that will give Clinton an advantage.

First, we’ve seen in prior town hall debates that the questions tend to be more substantive, but less predictable. Unlike journalists who are intensely interested in the latest political controversy, citizens tend to use their one opportunity to ask the candidates about issues. But the issues they choose could be about anything from marijuana legalization to farm policy to the availability of mass transit options to who knows what. Trump does not exactly have a facility with a wide range of issues, making it likely that he’ll display his ignorance and struggle to show he has any idea how to address the problems people have.

Second, the presence of those citizens means that viewers will be watching to see how the candidates relate to them, and relating to other humans one-on-one is something Hillary Clinton is actually very good at — which we forget when we think about her limitations as a public performer. To a great extent, this is the most natural place for her, where she can talk about the substance of issues but also connect with people one at a time.

Another way the set pieces of the rest of the campaign play to Clinton’s strengths is that she clearly has the superior ground game designed to reach persuadables and get out the vote.

But then Nate Silver brought up an interesting question.

Another question is whether there’s time for a Clinton comeback narrative, and then a Trump comeback narrative, to the extent that the media framing of these things matters.

Basically what’s happened so far:

May was good for Trump.
June was good for Clinton.
July was good for Trump.
August was good for Clinton.
September was good for Trump.

It looks as though — maybe, maybe — October might be good for Clinton. Is there time for November to be good for Trump…?

On the question about whether or not October looks to be a good month for Clinton, it does appear that things are swinging back in her direction. FiveThirtyEight’s own forecast now gives her a 66.3% chance of winning (up from 54.8% before the debate on Monday). Today the NYT has her chances at 74% and Sam Wang has it at 79%.

I think Silver is right to suggest that a lot of this is about media framing – but also to notice that it is a response to events. July was good for Trump mostly because of the novelty of his campaign combined with a traditional bounce from the Republican convention. August was good for Clinton because of a very successful Democratic convention and Trump’s meltdown about the Khan family. In September, Hillary garnered most of the headlines in a negative way as the media became obsessed with “questions” about Clinton Foundation. At the end of the month, Trump got back in the spotlight for his nonsense about birtherism…and then the first debate.

If you followed this campaign based on headlines in the press and what is reported on the nightly news, that is the pattern you observed. But it is important to note that – even with those swings – Trump has never managed to actually take the lead. It is simply a matter of how large Clinton’s edge has been.

In terms of media framing, this is where Trump’s Rick-rolling of the press on the birtherism announcement was so costly. It brought into question the whole idea of covering this election from the perspective of both-sider-ism, which tended to normalize Trump. His abysmal performance in the first debate coupled with his recent meltdown about Machado make it hard to imagine how he can turn that around.

Absent an “October surprise” of unknown origins, it looks like the remaining set pieces of this election favor Clinton. That doesn’t mean that Trump’s supporters will be less angry and/or loud – or that any of them are likely to change their minds. It simply means that, for the small percentage of voters who are still at play, Clinton will have the advantage.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.