Like a star-crossed baseball team trying to close out a pennant, Hillary Clinton holds an advantage in the race for president that feels real yet not at all reassuring — for her partisans or for Trump fearers worldwide. “She just has to hang on” seems like the dominant emotion among her backers, and for that matter among her staff, who handled her ground-zero meltdown like a front office desperately trying to minimize the seriousness of a star pitcher’s injury. “Just a bruise … OK, a muscle pull … we just took him out as a precautionary measure … he’ll make his next start … OK, fine, he’s on the disabled list.”
Unlike the 1978 Red Sox or the 1951 Dodgers, Clinton is still a good bet to hang on.
But last month, amid the Khan affair, it seemed as if Trump might simply plunge permanently into McGovern-Goldwater territory, leaving the actual election as a mere formality. Instead he has stayed alive, closing back to within a few points in the polling average. His odds are still poor, in the most plausible scenarios he loses — but he still has a path, and here’s what he needs to walk it.
First, Trump wants this to stay a four-way race. In national polling, his ceiling is close to Clinton’s floor — he peaks in the low 40s, she peaks close to 50 percent. This suggests that there are more true #NeverTrump than #NeverHillary voters, and that a section of voters (especially millennials) have rejected him pre-emptively but are still considering non-Clinton options. In which case, not only Jill Stein but also probably Gary Johnson are likely to take more votes from Clinton than from Trump.
Most Read Opinion Stories
If they drop — as third party candidates tend to do — toward statistical insignificance, then Trump will need to win over a lot of undecideds who plainly don’t want to vote for him. But this is a weird year, and they may not drop. If Johnson can equal John Anderson in 1980 and Stein can equal Ralph Nader’s fateful 2000 run (and they’re polling at roughly those levels today), then you can imagine a final line like Trump 44, Clinton 43.5, Johnson 7, Stein 3 — the stuff of Democratic nightmares, but for the Trump campaign a still possible dream.
Second, Trump needs to turn out a lot of people (working-class whites, in particular) who rarely or hardly ever vote. In the primary campaign, Trump didn’t usually outperform his polls, and there was little evidence of “Shy Trumpers” telling pollsters they were for Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz and then pulling the lever for Trump in secret.
But pollsters can never be certain about the composition of the electorate, and a November election throws up fewer obstacles to the casual voter than a primary campaign. (No caucusing, no party-registration requirements, everybody knows when Election Day is, etc.) Past celebrity candidates like Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger probably benefited from disaffected, usually apolitical voters coming out for them, and there’s no reason to assume it couldn’t happen to some extent for Trump.
Here it’s noteworthy that the best poll for Trump in this cycle, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times daily tracking poll, includes a larger sample of people who didn’t cast a ballot in 2012 but plan to vote in 2016 — and Trump is cleaning up with them. He’s not cleaning up in the poll as a whole, but he does often lead it, and when he does, his leads are in roughly the same territory as the four-way scenario just sketched above: Trump 44, Clinton 43; Trump 45, Clinton 42. …
Which points to the third key to a Trump victory: He needs Clinton’s potential support to be depressed, which means he needs outside events to raise constant doubts about her leadership, and beyond that about the entire political establishment that she embodies. Earlier this year, I called Trump’s ideal event a “gray swan,” as opposed to a black one — meaning that he wants a constant drippage of stuff that makes both Clinton and the larger elite seem clueless, feckless or corrupt, but not the kind of huge crisis that would change the basic shape of the campaign or make him seem like an untenable risk.
The weeks before the Republican convention were filled with gray swans — terror attacks in Europe, cop killings here at home, FBI Director James Comey’s rebuke of the Democratic nominee — and not surprisingly they were weeks when Trump sometimes led the polls (by, again, 44-43 or 43-42).
There have been fewer such events since, but Clinton’s hidden-then-acknowledged pneumonia is a perfect example of what Trump needs. It’s not a black swan, not a devastating illness that would force the Democrats to turn to the more electable Joe Biden. Instead, it just feeds into two of Trump’s narratives: alpha-male power versus actual physical weakness (people with pneumonia are even more low energy than Jeb Bush, after all), and bold outsider truth-telling versus reflexive elite cover-up.
We’ll see how the national polls look when the pneumonia incident is baked in. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see a few tied at, say, 43-43.
Now let me turn the screw a little further. The Electoral College is an unusual system, and Trump is an unusual candidate. He’s likely to underperform among normal Republicans in many red states, where the white working class is already very Republican, by losing white suburban professionals who voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. But he might overperform in Rust Belt states where the white working class is still a residually liberal swing vote and where there are a lot of disaffected independents who sat out 2012. (That’s probably how you can have state polls showing strikingly close races in Republican strongholds like Georgia and Arizona, even though Trump is quite competitive in swing states like Ohio.)
This unusual combination — underperforming but still probably winning Republican states, possibly overperforming in purple states — suggests a true black-swan endgame: Not Trump 44, Clinton 43, but Clinton 45, Trump 43 … except that Trump, with his Rust Belt strength, loses a lot of reliable deep-red votes he doesn’t need and turns out just enough nonvoters in a few key swing states to take the Electoral College, 270-268.
No, it’s not likely. No, don’t freak out. But for this race to end with a huge Electoral College crisis is the kind of outcome everything that’s happened in 2016 almost — almost — leads one to expect.