No one knows how long Trump can stay on message. (He turns out to be an effective teleprompted speaker who, unlike Obama, can go off the script for brief moments without stuttering and seeming confused.) No one knows how long he can continue to take on taboo topics in different and often innovative ways. No one knows how long Hillary Clinton’s triad of misfortune will persist — the endless drip, drip, drip scandals of the Clinton Foundation, e-mails, and intelligence negligence, veritable days of disappearance from the campaign, and incoherent messaging that vacillates between promising more of Obama and explicitly promising change from his status quo.
But right now Clinton’s problem is also one of momentum. Should Trump next week pull close to even in the swing-state polls and do so for 2–3 weeks, then some of the missing 15 percent of the Republican establishment will decide to swallow their pride and board the Trump train before it leaves the station. as they ponder the rare possibility in 2017 of a more conservative presidency, Supreme Court, and Congress. It may not be the sort of conservatism that they want, but it’s certainly better than what they were likely to get otherwise.
At that point, Trump may have an even chance of winning, given that he could replicate Romney’s base, perhaps draw 3–5 percent more of the minority vote, pick up another 2–3 percent from the so-called alienated Reagan Democrats, and assume that Hillary will not enthuse the Obama base to the same degree as in 2008/2012.
Conventional analysis had faulted Trump for having little money, few ads, scant internal polling, nonexistent voter-registration drives and in general wanting in all areas of traditional electioneering. All true, and he certainly needs more of all that and to focus on swing states. But the older Trump is still a product of popular culture in a way Hillary Clinton is not (she has blown hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve a tottering 3-point lead in national polls), and he has an undeniable if often cruel insight into public mood swings and tastes.
Steven Bannon is often the butt of traditional criticism for his lack of campaign experience, but at this moment that is a plus in some ways. He is no traditional politico and, like Trump, understands both culture and popular tastes far better than past Republican strategists. Seemingly crazy or overt pandering such as the trip to Louisiana, Mexico, and the inner-city incrementally make the case that Hillary Clinton really does not care about people in the elemental sense other than as bloc voters to empower her to redistribute Great Society spoils.
The Trump campaign’s take-no-prisoners style is a challenge to Hillary to match Trump’s peripatetic energy on the campaign trail—on the premise that her running out the clock style won’t work with daily scandals and a Trump who has stopped gaffing and directing attention to himself. Trump has taken a vicious pounding from the press, in unprecedented fashion, and somehow not lost his cool in a way that everyone thought he would.
The new Trump team’s achievement is to keep Trump’s mouth out of the news, Hillary’s scandals, health, and confused message in. They have made Trump’s unpredictable outreach professional, courteous, and serious. Hillary Clinton really is not a good speaker, has absolutely no new ideas about dealing with existential problems, cannot keep her fibbing and lying about her fibbing and lying straight, and is “low energy,” but the public does not know all that unless Trump’s ego is harnessed and he is not the news.
This weird election is really now in flux; the entire Republican party is in flux, and all the old referents are beginning to matter far less.