Since May 1, shortly before Donald Trump clinched the Republican Party's nomination for president, Trump has led Hillary Clinton in the national RealClearPolitics polling average for eight days. Specifically: May 21 through 24, while Clinton was waiting for Bernie Sanders to concede, and July 24 through 27, right after Trump's convention. On every other day — 165 of them, to be specific — Clinton has led, by an average of 4.4 points.
Clinton's lead has sort of ebbed and flowed, but since the most recent period in which Trump was close, shortly before the first debate, her lead grew quickly. It's now at 6.3 points (though it's slipped a bit in the past few days). On 132 of those 165 days, Clinton's lead was smaller than it is now.
That's national. In the states, Trump's fortunes have been at times slightly better and at times much worse. In three key battleground states — Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania — he's been mired between about 40 and 45 percent support in the polls since the beginning of August. He's slightly above 45 in Ohio now, according to RealClearPolitics, but was under 40 in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. He's tied in Ohio and trailing in Pennsylvania and Florida — and even somehow trailing in Arizona, a state that might as well officially change its name to "ruby-red Arizona."
All of that is the context for a bit of news from Trump's campaign. Jim Murphy joined in June to serve as political director, replacing Rick Wiley, who'd only been in the position for two months. On Thursday, it was reported that Murphy had to "step back" from the campaign for the last three weeks for personal reasons. Murphy came on shortly after former campaign manager Paul Manafort joined the team, but outlasted Manafort by about a month-and-a-half.
Murphy's job was to focus on Trump's efforts on the ground in those battleground states. This would be a thankless job under any circumstances, given Trump's repeatedly expressed antipathy for running traditional field campaigns and his apparent decision to outsource most of the work of contacting and turning out voters to the Republican Party. As Clinton has seen her lead expand and as Trump has watched the electoral math slip further away thanks to stagnant or worsening numbers in key states, it's easy to see why a political director might become a bit disheartened.
Most of what Trump spent in Ohio in his most recent campaign filing was spent on facility rentals and video production. Trump is paying rent in a number of Republican Party campaign offices in the state — Warren County, Marion, Mahoning, Greene, Columbiana, Clermont and Butler — but he had only three people on staff as "field consultants" in the state through the end of last month. Besides some "event consultants," no other staff are identified in the state.
One thing that's unique about Trump's candidacy is that the parts of the Republican base that vote most heavily — white Republicans with college degrees — are backing Hillary Clinton. Our most recent poll lets us compare the extent to which demographic groups say they're "certain" to vote with how they plan to vote. College-educated whites are the most likely to vote and, for the first time in decades, plan to vote Democratic.
White voters without degrees are much less likely to go to the polls. That's what a field effort tries to do: Encourage folks who may or may not make it to cast a ballot to do so. In a close race, it can make a big difference.
That sentence may explain some of what's going on now. Murphy's explanation for his departure went no further than "personal reasons," but his position with the campaign seems as though it must have been thankless under nearly any circumstance, much less one where the national picture had gotten so bleak. Trump's known for being indifferent to the feedback of his team, something he reiterated on Friday morning at a campaign stop in North Carolina.
Trump talking about how his "people" want him to talk about "jobs" but he wants to defend himself from "phony ads"
— Allan Smith (@akarl_smith) October 21, 2016
What a political campaign should be doing right now — even a struggling political campaign — is driving a unified message, contacting voters with that message before they vote and encouraging supporters in early-voting states to get to the polls. It's the Jim Murphys of the campaign who are responsible for doing that.
Trump is now without a Jim Murphy. Even if he could crawl back nationally — probably a decent-sized if — he's now completely reliant on his party to do the hard work of ensuring voters go to the polls. If he doesn't crawl back nationally, or if he doesn't crawl back enough, the party doesn't have a lot of incentive to spend time and money that could instead go to embattled House and Senate candidates.
For another campaign, this would be a crisis. But for this campaign, it's a crisis that's somewhere toward the middle of the long line of crises. It's a guy who lost a finger walking into an emergency room filled with people who have lost both legs and arms. It's a problem, and a big one — but it's not the worst one.