Did you watch much of the Republican Convention last week? If you are like me, you probably wondered just how botched a convention could be, with every night featuring some blow-up or indication of poor planning or just plain embarrassment. Even the Donald’s acceptance speech seemed off-key, with the candidate seeming exceedingly angry as he doubled down on all of his ill-considered “proposals” (quotation marks used to indicate that his plans and promises are vacuous and unreal).
But despite all indications that the candidate and his party did almost nothing right and very little to increase his popularity, the first polls following the convention showed him getting a decent bounce, with three of the four giving him a small lead over Hillary Clinton. (A fourth showed him still behind, but only marginally.)
Putting aside the historical inaccuracy (or impermanence) of polls taken immediately after either party’s convention, Mr. Trump continues to attract support despite seeming to disregard all the traditional ways that such support is attained in a national campaign. In this regard, it may be time to stop thinking that this is a candidacy that has no realistic chance of winning the election. In fact, it might be time to start thinking that this will be the election that changed the nature of American democracy.
What Trump’s campaign is seemingly proving would force many political science professors into retirement. His campaign is amateurish, to the point of not even really having a fully professional staff (most of the major decisions appear to be made by the candidate himself, his daughter, and his son-in-law, none of whom have any prior campaign experience). He seems to have complete disdain for substantive expertise; indeed, one wonders if he even reads at all, other than what appears on social media. His analyses of major issues are so shallow that I’m convinced I know more on most issues of import than he does, and all I do is read the New York Times every morning.
He defames opponents and vilifies major voting groups. He is politically incorrect in the extreme (as opposed to being politically incorrect in a trendy kind of way like a Bill Maher is). And he lies blatantly and remorselessly, skillfully denying he has lied when he is critiqued for any of his blatantly and ignorantly stated falsehoods by changing the subject (usually by uttering another outlandish bit of balderdash). His latest attempt to defer criticism is his claim that he was “being sarcastic” when he urged the Russians to hack e-mails from Ms. Clinton’s infamous private server.
His convention began with his wife’s plagiarism, was followed by a list of speakers no one had ever heard of or cared about (with most senior party people being nowhere to be seen), and had his principal rival for the nomination deliver a non-endorsement speech that no professional campaign would have allowed. And then the candidate himself gave an angry, poorly delivered (he really needs to work on his teleprompter skills) rant that went on forever and never offered one single plan in support of any of his “pledges” that are supposed to “make America great again.”
As I watched the proceedings and saw the lack of energy in the hall and the unprofessionalism of the planning and preparation behind each night’s agenda, I concluded that there was no way this guy can be elected president. And maybe that will still end up being the case.
But now there are those polls that give him a decent bump to the point of putting him at least in a tie, if not slightly ahead, of the far more professional, well-funded, and far more qualified (by experience) campaign of his opponent.
And so, what are we to think of it all? What are we experiencing in the nature of our democracy? Is the country’s electorate really so ignorant, or so angry, or so desperate that it is ripe for the plucking by a man who has nothing but disdain for everything that the country is meant to stand for?
Now, to be sure, it is easy to lose sight of the ebb and flow of a political season, and a lot can, and undoubtedly will, happen before the votes are cast in the fall. But Trump isn’t showing any signs of losing support; quite to the contrary, he appears to be continuing to gain support. And Clinton is still distrusted, even by many in her own party, and must run a somewhat awkward campaign in which she tries to refute Trump’s assertion that “the system is rigged,” while many in her own party firmly believe that it is. (She also has to somehow reconcile her claim that America is great with the cries from many that it isn’t great for them.)
As to the polls themselves, I’m inclined to believe that Trump’s numbers will always be two or three points lower than his actual vote totals. Some voters will be unwilling to state their preference for him in polls (embarrassment or its equivalent being the reason) but will vote for him nonetheless. Hence, Clinton’s campaign shouldn’t view any lead that is within the margin of error with even a minimal sense of confidence. (And even the pre-convention polls had her with little more than that kind of a lead.)
And then there is the man himself, who, while having all the flaws a candidate for president can possibly have, still says what many want to hear. And as long as he isn’t challenged in other than veiled comments from reporters or in Op-Ed pieces that are equally condemnatory of Ms. Clinton’s character, he will likely continue to appeal to the portion of the electorate that either distrusts or hates her, or that is fed up with the status quo, or that truly believes that the system needs to be blown up.
Two New York Times’ reporters (David Sanger and Maggie Haberman) interviewed Trump during the convention last week. They reported on the interview in a front page column on the morning of Trump’s acceptance speech. When they asked him what he hoped people would take away from the convention, Mr. Trump provided a simple, clear answer that says everything about him and his candidacy.
“The fact,” he said, “that I am very well liked.”