BY TOM LANSDELL
As the presidential race enters its final few days, new polling numbers indicate that Trump’s campaign may still have one final push left. In the middle of October, Trump appeared to be staring down the barrel as he looked at a deficit of more than 7 points. Now, Trump is breathing down Clinton’s neck at less than 2 points behind. While this lead is still valuable, we are left wondering how he has managed to turn it around, and whether Clinton’s presidential hopes now hang in the balance.
At first glance, Trump’s surge could easily be explained by new revelations about Clinton’s emails. However, such an assumption is unwarranted and could signify a dangerous complacency for the Clinton campaign who would view the scandal’s re-emergence as a temporary and manageable threat. But it is doubtful that the emails scandal retains much salience amongst voters. Even if we are to assume that it still does, it is unlikely that it will change many minds that haven’t been changed already.
A far more likely explanation is the shift in Trump’s tone in recent weeks. While his rhetoric can still on the whole be classed as somewhere between aggressive and insulting, Trump has undoubtedly made an effort to restrain himself. Many, including me, were expecting Trump to play a Hail Mary in the final debate and step up his attacks even further. Instead, he delivered a much more moderate performance, opting to stay away from the personal attacks that dominated the first two debates.
Clinton’s emails may have, in a roundabout way, enabled this scenario to play out. Trump’s campaign has always relied on brutal attacks on his opponents, but now he can do so in a legitimate manner, without being accused of dragging the debate into the gutter. From a British perspective, this distinction may seem insignificant, but we cannot forget that for many Americans, this is a hard fought internal battle that weighs up their instinctive draw to Trump versus his failures of character. For these people, this election is a referendum on Trump.
Trump’s appeal derives from his position as an alternative to mainstream Washington politics and while he has made a conscious effort to woo the centrist voter recently, he does nevertheless remain a candidate completely at odds with the political establishment and electoral history. As such, this election is primarily being fought on untrodden battleground. For the most part, votes are not going to be won on the traditional liberal/conservative spectrum, nor is it going to be won on any particular issue. This election is about populism and political upheaval.
If we have learnt anything from Brexit yet, it is that populist movements are difficult to predict based on previous polling and may experience a surge at the ballot box. I do not intend to conflate the beliefs of Trump supporters and Brexit supporters, but I do believe that the binary decision between what is perceived to be an elite choice and what is perceived to be a populist choice bears a dynamic more similar than comparing the US election to any other historical election. The only possible exception to this is the 1980 Presidential Election: Reagan vs Carter. Previously a Hollywood actor with relatively little political experience, Reagan’s adversarial style and use of sentiment over fact in speeches bears a considerable resemblance to Trump’s campaign, both using their position as a Washington outsider to their advantage. Like Trump, Reagan trailed for much of the early race, before a late surge in momentum and a final result that exceeded previous polling gave him a convincing victory.
This subject of momentum has been a factor uncharacteristically under-analysed in this election, despite its historical significance. The importance of the “Big Mo” has been played up in previous election cycles, particularly by George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who used the image of the “Comeback Kid” to secure the Democratic nomination and then the Presidency in 1992. There is still plenty of time for the numbers to change, but it should come as no surprise if Donald Trump proves to be the “Comeback Kid” on 8th November.