The election that was starting to look like a laugher several weeks ago has lately turned seriously close. It’s a wonder what having Hillary Clinton as your opponent will do for your chances of winning.
Clinton’s post-convention bounce in the polls has disappeared. Her national lead over Donald Trump is a fraction of what it was in early August, and his current standing in various swing states puts him well within reach of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
In short, this race is back to where it was when it began: Americans really don’t like Hillary Clinton, but they’re not totally sure they can vote for Donald Trump.
And so they are expected to tune in by the tens of millions — I’ve seen at least one estimate of 100 million viewers — for the first debate tonight. It’s hard to imagine that many people would watch a debate if they’ve already made up their minds. I think a large number of them -- not a majority, or even a plurality, but perhaps enough to swing the election -- will watch with a very specific kind of question in mind:
Is Trump crazy, or not? Does he seem like he might nuke somebody? Can I trust him?
If Trump can reassure them on these questions, I think he’ll be our next president. If not, he won’t.
Understand the difference between that standard and “winning” this debate, or the two that will follow. I don’t expect Trump to be declared the “winner,” because he’s not your typical debater. He will sound ill-prepared at times, flustered at times, incoherent at times.
That’s because he was, at times, all those things during the GOP primary debates. Didn’t matter. Other candidates would “win” the debates in the eyes of the political class and the pundits; Trump was the one who kept rising in the polls, kept winning states.
One thing that has become clear this year is that a huge chunk of the electorate is scoring the fight differently than the judges. They aren’t worried about style points. They aren’t giving points for landing punches on policy or ideology. If anything, they’re looking for someone who will go to a Washington that’s used to boxing, and start fighting MMA-style.
It is unclear if Democrats fully grasp this yet. A video that appeared this past week showed Clinton, addressing labor union members, wondering aloud and with no small sense of annoyance why she wasn’t “50 points ahead.”
It’s the same kind of self-righteous indignation many left-wing celebrities heaped on “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon after he declined to attack Trump as an orange-faced vulgarian when the candidate appeared on his show. Democrats’ collective belief that Trump isn’t just worthy of opposition but of complete dismissal from polite conversation — along with the “deplorables” who support him, whatever their reasons — goes a long way toward explaining why Clinton has fallen back in the polls.
If she shows up at the debates with that sense of annoyance and that self-righteous indignation and that dismissiveness, she’ll lose.
In fact, I’m not sure there’s anything Clinton herself can do in the debates to win the election. Americans know what they get in her, and they haven’t decided to take it yet.
The election is about Trump, and whether Americans think they can take the risk of putting him in office. A hundred million people is a heck of an audience for a man trying to convince them they can.