MANY people around the world are probably wondering why Hillary Clinton — who is obviously more prepared and better suited for the American presidency than her opponent, Donald Trump — isn’t waltzing to victory. Many Americans share the world’s bewilderment.
Opinion polls may well continue to fluctuate until the election on November 8, but Trump has been closing in on Clinton in recent weeks, even threatening to catch up with her in the electoral college vote, where the Democrats’ control of some of the most populous states (New York and California) give Clinton an advantage. Why is this happening?
For starters, Trump, despite knowing almost nothing about governance or public policy, has managed to consolidate most Republicans behind him. One motivation is Republicans’ long-held hatred of Clinton. Another is the Supreme Court; the court already has one vacant seat for the next president to fill and is likely to have more over the next four years.
Trump has also exploited many Americans’ economic anxieties, tapping the same anti-immigrant, anti-elite rage that is sweeping across European countries. But he cannot win by appealing only to white men without a college degree.
So he has been clumsily trying to suggest that he also cares about African-Americans and Latinos — not by talking to African-American and Latino voters, but by speaking in exaggerated stereotypes about them to white audiences. Not surprisingly, African-Americans and Latinos consider his comments insensitive and patronising; white women — his real target audience — haven’t yet been persuaded, either.
Since the two major parties’ national conventions in July, each candidate has alternately made gains and suffered losses. This month, just as Trump was rising in the polls, he attempted to separate himself from the racist “birther” movement, which falsely claims that Obama — America’s first black president — wasn’t born in the US, and thus was ineligible for the presidency.
Trump’s remarks, terse and grudging, reminded everyone that he himself was one of the loudest “birthers” of all. His damage-control effort further backfired, because he falsely claimed that Clinton and her 2008 presidential campaign had started the birther rumour.
Many news outlets finally used the word “lie” in their coverage of Trump, who had gone essentially unchallenged on past fabrications.
Trump’s recent polling gains say less about his improvement as a candidate than they do about Clinton’s own weaknesses and bad luck. Outside her base of passionate loyalists, Clinton has always had a voter-enthusiasm problem.
She comes across to many as a packaged know-it-all, the super-smart girl who put off the boys in school. And she confronts a fair amount of sexism, even among her supporters. (A former Democratic governor recently declared she should smile more. Would he have said that about a man?) But Clinton has also created some of her own problems.
Her poor judgement in using a private email server as secretary of state, thereby risking the disclosure of classified material, has become a chronic burden for her campaign. She compounded the problem when she claimed, falsely, her predecessors had done the same thing, and that State Department security officials had cleared it. And, unlike Trump, she received no deference from the press on this issue.
The email saga added to voters’ long-held impression that Clinton isn’t “honest and trustworthy”, and it exposed her to attacks from adversaries on the right. While FBI director James Comey decided not to recommend prosecution of Clinton for the email issue, he hurt her campaign by commenting that she had been “extremely careless”.
A new issue arose in August, when the AP reported that numerous donors to the Clinton Foundation had received special treatment by the US state department during Clinton’s tenure there, mainly by winning an appointment with her. But many of these people would have received an appointment anyway; there is no evidence that state department policies were changed as a result.
Finally, Clinton had the bad luck of falling ill, with footage showing her nearly collapsing as she left a ceremony in New York commemorating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack. This added further fuel to right-wing media speculation that she is in poor health; Trump added the sexist charge that she lacks the “stamina” to be president.
Clinton’s four-day convalescence came just as she was preparing to make the case for why people should vote for her, rather than why they shouldn’t vote for Trump.
As she resumed campaigning, there were bombings in New York and New Jersey, and two more police shootings of unarmed African Americans, which spurred demonstrations in North Carolina, a swing state. The events took over the national dialogue, with Trump, as usual, playing on racial divisions and blaming Obama and Clinton.
It would be unwise to call this election over before it is.
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.