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Things Still Matter

What to remember about the presidential election when Donald Trump’s comeback narrative begins

AP Images
AP Images

Remember this moment of the campaign.

I say this not to gloat about Donald Trump’s latest meltdown — that’s what Twitter is for — or because I think the race is anywhere close to over. It is entirely possible, even likely, that the polls will tighten again between now and November. Bounces fade. Memories are short. Hillary Clinton could commit some horrible gaffe or become embroiled in some scandal, real or imagined. The unusually high percentage of Republicans who are now telling pollsters they aren’t supporting their party’s nominee could shrink. Trump could show up at the debates with an entirely new personality that makes him a palatable human being for the first time in this campaign. You never know.

Still, even if none of this occurs, the media will eventually grow tired of the “Trump’s finished” story line and move on to the much more clickable “Trump’s comeback” narrative. Any day now, some Quinnipiac poll that shows a tied race in Pennsylvania will force Democrats to lose control of their bladders. A Trump surge in a stray tracking poll will result in a CNN Breaking News Countdown Clock that will tick down the seconds to an emergency panel of 37 pundits. The sheer hysteria of the “How Could She Blow This?” pieces will dwarf the collective freak-out that followed President Obama’s first debate loss in 2012. It won’t be pretty.

And that’s when we’ll all need to stop, take a deep breath, and remember this moment.

For most of the campaign, Trump’s ability to avoid the political immolation that usually follows overt displays of racism, sexism, pathological dishonesty, or gross incompetence from a presidential candidate has led to a common refrain among political types: “Nothing matters.” He’s still winning primaries after calling Mexican immigrants rapists and mocking a reporter’s disability? Nothing matters. He’s winning after flirting with the KKK, talking about the size of his dick on national television, and saying that he’d punish women who get abortions? Nothing matters. The race is still close after Trump attacked a federal judge’s Mexican heritage, tweeted “appreciate the congrats” in response to a terrorist attack, encouraged a foreign power to commit espionage on American soil, and shows a level of knowledge on domestic and international affairs that is roughly on par with someone who catches the first 10 minutes of The Situation Room?

Nothing matters. Nothing matters. Nothing matters.

I’ve always found this reply to be a bit silly and overstated. For starters, the saturated coverage of Donald Trump has led directly to the worst approval rating of any presidential candidate in modern history. We can debate whether the cause of July’s tighter race was Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, general polarization, or some combination of all three, but pretending that nothing matters — that Teflon Don has broken all the rules; that everything we know about politics is wrong and we’re all just hopelessly out of touch — is ultimately cynical and self-defeating. When nothing matters, nothing works. Every strategy that might defeat Trump is second-guessed. Every tactic is suspect. Every slogan is mocked. And everyone on the Clinton campaign must be dumb for not listening to the rest of us geniuses.

Which is why it’s worth pointing out that right now, something has mattered. If the election were held today, according to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of the public polls, Hillary Clinton would win in an electoral landslide, potentially carrying states such as Arizona and Georgia — places no Democratic presidential candidate has won in decades. Again, the final tally could be much closer, but we should remember that Trump’s current predicament is not the result of any one gaffe or misstep or string of bad luck — it’s the result of an actual campaign that Hillary’s running very well and Trump is running very poorly. I’m convinced that if Donald Trump and his entire staff were replaced tomorrow with a drunken Fox News viewer chosen at random, that person would probably run a better campaign. It’s a level of ineptitude that relieves me as a citizen, but offends me as a political professional.

One of the most glaring examples of this malpractice to date was the difference between the two conventions. These are essentially four-day infomercials. Each campaign gets hours of wall-to-wall prime-time coverage to reach out to millions of voters, many of whom are paying attention to the race for the first time. The objective is to unify your own party and persuade undecided voters by telling a story: about yourself, about your opponent, about your vision, and about your plans to achieve that vision. It is the single best uninterrupted chance to do so the entire campaign. And on almost every measure, Trump failed.

The speakers at the Republican National Convention could’ve told memorable anecdotes that revealed the candidate’s softer side, his managerial expertise, his business acumen, his judgment, his work ethic — I don’t know, pick something.

They didn’t. Not even one story. Not even from Trump’s own family.

They could’ve launched any number of legitimate, believable attacks on Hillary Clinton’s policies, character, or judgment.

They didn’t. Their central message was that the Democratic nominee should be imprisoned, and that the incumbent president is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya.

Trump could’ve delivered an acceptance speech that acknowledged people’s fears and anxieties without inflaming them by making America sound like The Purge. He could’ve offered himself as a change agent — an outsider from the business world with fresh ideas. He could’ve added some basic level of detail to any one of his vague policy pronouncements — something any pollster will tell you that undecided voters crave.

But he didn’t do any of these things. He gave a long, dark, meandering speech that offered only a wall to keep out Mexicans, a ban to keep out Muslims, and Trump himself as the one solution to the post-apocalyptic nightmare in which we live.

The results were not good. What initially looked like a small convention bounce for Trump now seems like a fleeting blip that could’ve been the tail end of his momentum leading into the RNC, a month of strong polling that coincided with FBI director James Comey’s less-than-stellar exoneration of Hillary Clinton’s email practices.

Gallup found that Trump’s convention speech was viewed positively by 35 percent of Americans and negatively by 36 percent, resulting in the first net-negative rating for any candidate speech by either party’s nominee since 1996. A majority of people also said they were less likely to vote for Trump after seeing his convention — the only time that’s happened since 1984. Even in the CNN poll that gave Trump his largest bounce (plus-6), a plurality of Americans said that Trump’s speech didn’t reflect the way they feel about the United States and were less likely to vote for him as a result.

The picture looks even worse for Trump a few weeks out. Sunday’s Washington Post–ABC News poll showed that Trump failed to improve his image with voters in any significant way — they don’t see him as any more likable, qualified, knowledgeable, or fit to be president than they did before the convention. According to the Washington Post–ABC poll, Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump in the primary are less likely to support him than they were before, and the Gallup poll found the same was true of white women, college-educated whites, independents, and young voters.

Fail, fail, fail.

Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who had a successful convention by almost every measure. Each prime-time speaker had a different role: Hillary laid out an optimistic vision and specific plans, Bernie called for party unity, Bill Clinton told vivid stories about his wife’s long career as a problem-solving change-maker, and the Obamas defined American exceptionalism as a set of timeless, widely shared values and beliefs that are the antithesis of everything Donald Trump’s character and campaign represent.

It worked. Clinton’s speech was viewed more positively than any since 2008, with a plurality of Americans saying they were more likely to vote for her as a result. Nearly every post-convention poll shows that she significantly improved her favorability ratings — including an 11-point swing in the Post poll. Unlike Trump, she also won over voters who backed her opponent in the primary, and is now winning between 85–90 percent of Bernie supporters. She leads Trump on likability, knowledge, temperament, honesty, empathy, fitness for office, immigration, trade, race relations, making the country safer, and handling an international crisis.

Again, Clinton’s bounce may fade, or at least shrink a bit. But when that happens, we should remember a few political truths that have not been upended during this uniquely bizarre election:

1. Campaigning still works.

2. Making an argument against your opponent still works.

3. Laying out an optimistic vision for the future still works.

4. A successful convention with compelling speakers and great speeches can still persuade and inspire voters who are on the fence, or haven’t yet made up their minds.

This last point was particularly true of the Democratic convention’s most memorable speech: an unscripted, heartfelt plea from the parents of a soldier who died trying to save his friends in Iraq. The young hero had always been brave and kind — he once protected a classmate from bullies, and taught swimming to children with disabilities. His father is a lawyer known for handing out pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution, and described by friends as the most patriotic person they’ve ever met. His mother helps knit quilts at a local fabric store. Together, they still attend every event at the local Army ROTC program, and hand out an annual award in their son’s name.

The Khan family also happens to be Muslim — immigrants from Pakistan who might have been banned from entering this country if Donald Trump had been president.

Mr. Khan’s speech built to a moment that will be remembered for a very long time, as he held up his pocket copy and asked, “Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?”

With that simple gesture and single question, Mr. Khan said everything there is to say — about Trump’s values, his intelligence, and his character; about the true definition of patriotism and citizenship; about what America has always meant and stood for. Most of us saw it or at least heard about it. And at a time of intense polarization and disagreement, most of us got it — no matter which party or religion we belong to.

Most of us, that is, except for Donald Trump, who unwittingly, but predictably, proved Khan’s point by dismissing the Gold Star family with a conspiratorial response that likely did more to damage his presidential hopes than the original speech did.

In the coming weeks, Trump will try once again to make this election a referendum on Hillary Clinton. But this is a man who can only think about himself — who can only talk about himself — whose entire campaign is premised not on policies or vision or ideology, but on the single promise that he alone has the qualifications to lead this country.

It will always be about him. And we’ve learned over the past few weeks that to a sizable majority of Americans, that is what really matters.