The latest polling has painted a worrisome, though somewhat mixed, picture for Hillary Clinton. Today’s New York Times/CBS poll had them tied nationally at 40-40 among registered voters. Some state polls yesterday found the race tightening dramatically in several battleground states, with Quinnipiac showing Trump up in Florida and Pennsylvania, though others had her comfortably ahead in Pennsylvania and a few other swing states.
Overall, the polls have unleashed a wave of speculation that Clinton is sinking under the weight of the FBI revelations, and a great deal of hand-wringing among her supporters, who are wondering whether this is a temporary dip or a sign of deeper problems ahead.
Today I spoke to Clinton’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, about these concerns, about the polls, and about the state of the race. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
THE PLUM LINE: What’s your reaction to the latest polling?
JOEL BENENSON: I’ve been pretty vocal about public polling. The media needs to police itself better on reporting all these polls, because the only thing they know about all these polls is that they can’t all be right. Editors and producers ought to think twice about chasing every poll story because it creates a good headline.
PLUM LINE: What’s the true state of the race?
BENENSON: We have very close presidential elections. We do not have many blowouts historically. We’ve only elected and reelected seven presidents with fifty percent or more of the vote both times. The collection of battleground states — where the election is won or lost — are usually close, usually in single digits. They are battleground states for a reason.
PLUM LINE: One emerging pattern is that in more diverse states — like Colorado and Virginia — she has bit more of an edge than in Rust Belt states like Ohio. Trump is making a play for the Rust Belt, while alienating key Dem constituencies like college educated whites, nonwhites and young voters. Is the map being redrawn, with her doing better in more diverse states?
BENENSON: Ohio is going to be close. I wouldn’t call it a redrawing. Here’s what I think about the map. It’s going to be a close race. But there isn’t any state in the battleground universe where Donald Trump will force us to play defense.
But there are other states where it becomes very problematic for Republicans. A state like North Carolina — in 2004, Republicans probably felt pretty comfortable there. They don’t now. States like Arizona and Utah, if we can make them play defense there, which is very plausible because of the kind of divisive candidate Donald Trump is, it puts more pressure on them.
PLUM LINE: The aggregate polling does seem to suggest that she may be sinking.
Some states will be very tight. But Trump has more ground to make up in more places. We’re very competitive where we need to be. We’ve got a little breathing room in some places. We can’t take anything for granted. But I don’t think there’s any state where Trump and Republicans are saying, “Wow, we’ve got a lot of breathing room here.”
PLUM LINE: You reject the idea that the FBI findings are causing her to decline?
BENENSON: I believe the race is as competitive as we expected it to be. There will be blips up and down along the way.
PLUM LINE: Do you view Trump as having a ceiling? You’re working hard to render him toxic among suburban and independent and Republican women, and college educated whites. Is there a ceiling of around 40-42? Or could he actually start to expand his appeal?
BENENSON: We’ve seen that middle of the road voters find his manner, recklessness, and demeaning statements alienating. Whether he has a ceiling, it’ll take longer to see that. There’s no evidence of him piercing that ceiling yet. But we have four months to go, and we haven’t heard either of the conventions. Those are opportunities.
It’s anybody’s guess what his convention is going to be like. One thing we do know is that the disunity in the Republican Party — with major national Republican figures not wanting to be anywhere near Trump or his convention — will be part of the focus of that week.
PLUM LINE: The Times had a piece recently talking about Clinton’s “trust deficit.” It said Clinton aides believe the way to rebuild trust with voters is by demonstrating competence and a devotion to policies that are important to them. Is that a way to offset the “trust issue” — focusing on priorities and issues?
BENENSON: Clinton has said she knows she has to earn the trust of every American. She’s going to do that by demonstrating every day her compassion and her drive to make a difference in their lives.
When they’re looking at Hillary Clinton — who for decades has been making a cause of families and children, and changing the odds for people who have the odds stacked against them — that’s the kind of president they want. Not someone who is in it for himself and has stepped all over working people and small business people.
PLUM LINE: But how do you account for her high unfavorable numbers? His are worse, but hers are pretty bad.
BENENSON: We had a tough primary. We had a vigorous debate on the Democratic side. We only got the endorsement of our opponent in the last week. A lot of what we’ll see at the convention is unity, coalescing, and consolidation.
The way Hillary Clinton’s favorable numbers will go up is, we’re going to be running against Donald Trump every day. We’re going to be drawing a contrast between who she fights for and what she stands for — against one of the most divisive, dangerous figures that the public has had as a major party presidential candidate probably in most Americans’ lifetimes.
PLUM LINE: It’s being widely reported that his vice presidential pick will be Mike Pence. Any thoughts?
BENENSON: I’ll hold off until he makes his pick. The real fact of the matter is that he’s got a longer list of people who didn’t want to be his vice president than the short list of people who did want to be. And that reflects the disunity in the party over who their standard bearer is.