Chief correspondent

The unraveling of Donald Trump’s candidacy continues apace, a long and steady decline since the high point three months ago. If he were deliberately trying to avoid winning the election, he could hardly be doing a better job.

The hole he has dug for himself is wide and deep. National polls and battleground state polls all tell a similar story. Hillary Clinton has opened up a small-to-significant lead over Trump almost everywhere it counts. Unless Trump can reverse course, Clinton, despite persistent questions about her honesty, is on track to win a handsome electoral college majority. The lone bright spot for Trump: It’s August not October. But that comes with a caveat.

Republicans hope Trump is bottoming out. They are waiting for a pivot that could and should have happened before Memorial Day. They wonder whether it will happen by the end of the month or at all. Labor Day used to be seen as the kickoff of the general election — that moment when more and more Americans start paying close attention. That notion is a relic of another era — and Trump is hardly underexposed. The general election is already half over, and Trump has lost the first half decisively.

The past few weeks provide a telling account of a candidate who has found multiple ways to avoid focusing on a consistent message. He got into a pointless and damaging exchange of criticisms with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004. He hesitated to give House Speaker Paul D. Ryan an endorsement while praising Ryan’s opponent in the Wisconsin primary. He made a comment at a rally that appeared to advocate violence against Clinton or Supreme Court justices. And then he claimed that President Obama was the founder of the Islamic State (and Clinton the co-founder).

The pattern was consistent. Days of damaging media attention followed by cleanup efforts. After not endorsing Ryan, he endorsed Ryan. After making his comment about what Second Amendment supporters could do if they didn’t like Clinton’s judicial appointments, he and surrogates said he was only talking about mobilizing a key constituency. After calling Obama the founder of the Islamic State, and doubling down when more benign interpretations of his remarks were offered as escapes, he finally claimed he was just being sarcastic, or maybe not.

The Fix's Aaron Blake explains the controversy around Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's comments that "maybe there is" something "the Second Amendment people" can do to prevent Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton from appointing pro-gun control justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

In a political climate that favors change, Trump has managed, by shifting attention away from Clinton’s vulnerabilities, to make the election as much about temperament and stability as it is about shaking up the status quo.

Where has this left Trump? He trails Clinton by more than six percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national poll average. The two biggest battlegrounds, Ohio and Florida, remain competitive, although Clinton currently leads in both. Trump must win both or find a truly innovative route to victory. Trump also trails by an average of roughly nine points in Pennsylvania, another state considered a must-win for him and supposedly ripe for his anti-trade message.

Beyond that, he trails by an average of five or more points in three states that have been critical battlegrounds in recent elections: Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire. Newly released NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist polls show Clinton leading in Virginia and Colorado by double digits, and there is now a question of whether both should be removed from the swing state list.

Trump advisers point to Iowa and Nevada as states that went for Obama but are now competitive. But, for now at least, so are Arizona, which Democrats have not won since 1996, and North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008 but Mitt Romney won four years ago. Polls even suggest that Georgia is potentially competitive. Trump also trails in Michigan and Wisconsin, two more industrial states his advisers have suggested might be winnable.

The net of all this is that Trump’s path looks as or more difficult than it did a few months ago.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller took issue with analyses that say the GOP nominee is not delivering a clear and consistent message. “This is why the American public feels that there is such strong media bias against Mr. Trump’s campaign,” he wrote in an email. “The reality is, Mr. Trump is effectively delivering messages of economic growth and defeating radical Islamic terrorism while Hillary Clinton plays clean up after her email and corrupt pay-to-play scandals, not to mention her in-campaign vacations.”

All Trump’s talk about tapping an army of disaffected white voters who have been on the sidelines in past elections has produced little in terms of tangible evidence. Meanwhile, he continues to bleed support from prominent Republicans, who say they cannot support him in November.

One thing remains steady for Trump. His core supporters are thoroughly loyal and seemingly enthusiastic. His crowds remain huge. They are also a misleading indicator. The closer Trump gets to Election Day, the more those big crowds will distract him from the reality of the overall campaign. He’s in danger of permanently locking himself into a losing percentage of the electorate.

Trump continues to practice the politics of subtraction, finding ways to prevent expansion of his potential coalition. Rather than looking at weaknesses in his support and trying to find ways to win a few percentage points among particular groups of voters, his words and behavior do the opposite.

A comparison of two Washington Post-ABC News polls illustrates the problem. In mid-May, Trump led Clinton 46 percent to 44 percent. In the most recent poll, completed on Aug. 4, Clinton led 50 to 42.

Among Democrats, Clinton has picked up six points since May. Meanwhile, Trump has lost two points among Republicans. Trump is still ahead among men, and Clinton is ahead among women, but he’s actually lost ground among men, while she’s gained among women.

He has made no progress picking up support from nonwhite voters and so must rely almost totally on whites to win. His strongest support is still among whites without college degrees, but his margin in the Post-ABC poll has declined from 40 points to 25 points since May. Among whites with college degrees, Clinton has gone from down one to ahead by six. On the ideological spectrum, she has added to her margin among moderates.

Clinton performed better in two of the three high-profile moments of any general election. Trump’s vice-presidential rollout was messy; hers was not. His convention bounce was modest; hers was larger and, so far, more lasting. That leaves the upcoming debates as even more critical for Trump than they should be.

There are three presidential debates (and one between the vice-presidential candidates), with the first on Sept. 26. The Commission on Presidential Debates established the dates and formats last year. Trump has sent mixed signals about the debates, but assume for now that he participates in all three.

Trump believes he won virtually every debate against his Republican primary opponents. Trump’s big personality was an asset in those multi-candidate forums. Trump’s advisers believe his more freewheeling approach will play well against a scripted Clinton. But his disinterest in the details of policy could prove to be a liability in formats that require the candidate to talk much more about issues’ substance.

Trump needs to put his campaign on sounder footing well ahead of those debates. If the polls then look close to what they are now, he would need decisive performances throughout the debate season. His Republican allies are nervously watching and waiting to see if the candidate responds — quickly.