Every campaign has its ups and downs, and if you’re Donald Trump or one of his supporters right now, you want to tell yourself that this is just another down period, sure to be followed eventually by an upswing. There are still three months to go before election day, after all, and plenty can happen between now and then. For all we know the zombie apocalypse could start next week, and Americans will demand a no-nonsense leader who knows how to build walls and give us the emotional strength to lop off the heads of our undead friends and neighbors, not to mention cultivate the suspicion of outsiders that could mean the difference between surviving another day and perishing at the hands of desperate cannibals.
But that scenario aside, Trump is going to have to find some way to reverse the current situation. So what might he do? Let’s run through some possibilities:
Become “presidential.” This is something Trump has occasionally said he would do at some future date — stop insulting people and become more sober and substantive. But it should be clear by now that he just doesn’t have it in him. In her convention speech, Hillary Clinton said, “There is no other Trump. This is it.” And she was right. All of Trump’s problems have been of his own making, and even if he were to avoid any more spectacular screwups like getting into a fight with the parents of a fallen soldier, that won’t undo the damage that’s already been done. You can decide to stop drilling holes in the bottom of your boat, but that doesn’t mean you won’t keep sinking.
Do something about the gender gap. Some months ago I predicted that this election could show the largest gender gap in history, and it certainly seems like it’s headed that way. The worst showing among women voters in recent years was in 1996, where Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole by 17 points. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 11 points with women. Now look at some recent poll results. McClatchy/Marist has Clinton leading Trump by 20 points with women. She’s up by 16 among women in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. CNN puts her lead among them at 23 points.
There’s no doubt that some of that gap comes from women being excited about voting for the first woman president, and some of it comes from being repelled by Trump. Is there some way Trump could show women voters he has their interests at heart? It’s hard to imagine what that might be.
Do something about his problems with Latinos, and African-Americans, and young people, and… Trump is doing miserably with all these groups, and he now faces the challenge of undoing the impressions they have of him that have been built up over the last year. If you’re a Latino voter, for instance, and you’ve watched Trump say that Mexican immigrants are rapists, that we should build a wall on our southern border, and that a judge can’t be impartial if he has Mexican heritage, are you likely to change your opinion of him? How could he convince you to do that? And this is important to understand: he’s still making things worse. He spends healthy portions of his rallies criticizing immigrants, sometimes reading off lists of crimes immigrants have committed. So he doesn’t seem to be inclined to change what people think of him.
Hope the economy plunges into a recession. Today’s numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the economy added 255,000 jobs in July, continuing the long string of job creation that has marked the Obama presidency. There are plenty of things about the economy to be less than enthusiastic about, but with unemployment at a mere 4.9 percent and wage growth finally showing signs of improving, Trump’s argument that we’re crawling through a swamp of economic misery doesn’t seen to be taking hold. So in order for there to be a fundamental change in the economy’s impact on the presidential race, something dramatic would have to happen. Trump himself has predicted that we’re headed for a “very massive recession” some time soon, but his record on predictions like that is less than stellar — and time is short.
Hope for a large terrorist attack. Yes, that’s an awful thing to say. But remember, back in March, Trump explicitly said that the fact that he talks about terrorism a lot “is probably why I’m number one in the polls.”
Still, even if an attack were to happen, there isn’t much reason to think it would aid Trump. Despite the fact that in the past the public has gravitated toward Republicans when confronted with external dangers, Trump’s reaction to recent attacks here at home and around the world has been so erratic, and such a contrast to Clinton’s calm responses, that there’s no reason to believe an atmosphere of tragedy and crisis wouldn’t benefit her more than him.
Convince Republicans to rally around him. Right now Clinton is getting more unified support from Democrats than Trump is from Republicans. Can he change that? The trouble is that his poor poll results may be sending him into a vicious cycle. The more it looks like he’s going to lose, the more other prominent Republicans have an incentive to distance themselves from him. Even if few are willing to go so far as to endorse Clinton, Republican candidates at all levels are telling voters that they’re not like Trump and won’t be beholden to him. Faced with a choice between loyalty to their party’s nominee and their own self-interest, they’ll always choose the latter.
And if down-ballot Republicans can successfully distance themselves from Trump, they would provide voters in their states or districts a kind of permission to vote against him. If you’re a moderate Republican voter feeling torn between your reservations about Trump and the pull of party loyalty, voting for a Senate or House candidate who’s clearly telling you they’re good Republicans but opposed to Trump can be a way to resolve the dissonance.
Hope that Clinton sinks her own ship. Right now Clinton seems to be following a strategy of letting Trump dominate the national headlines while she goes out on the campaign trail and concentrates on obtaining local coverage. This is a shrewd plan, not only because Trump is doing himself so much damage, but also because local coverage of candidate visits is far less critical than national coverage, tending more toward the “look how neat it is that a presidential candidate is right here in our town!” variety. She’s pairing that with a vigorous presence in paid media and an extensive field network, both of which the Trump campaign has barely bothered with. All that adds up to a careful, methodical, low-risk campaign.
Nevertheless, it’s possible that there could be some dramatic new revelation about Clinton, or that she could do something awful like intentionally run over a crate full of adorable corgi puppies with her campaign bus, and it would change the shape of the race. So Trump can wait for that to happen.
Start running an extraordinarily skillful, disciplined campaign that maximizes opportunities, avoids mistakes, and combines persuasion with mobilization to turn Republicans out to the polls while not motivating Trump’s opponents against him. Trump could manage this, I suppose. But it seems rather unlikely.
There are certainly things I’ve left off this list, and there are always unforeseen circumstances that might alter the race. Clinton could be at a high point in the polls right now, and the race might tighten as we approach election day. Anything’s possible. But at the moment, Trump has an uphill climb ahead of him, and there aren’t many indications that he is prepared to do any of the things he needs to do in order to turn that around.