Maybe this will be the scandal that brings Donald Trump down, attacking the bereaved parents of a fallen US soldier.
But we’ve heard this claim before. For more than a year now, Trump’s been crossing lines that make people say, “Well, this time he’s really gone too far” — whether it’s demeaning Senator John McCain’s time as a POW, mocking a reporter’s disability, or offering praise for Vladimir Putin and Saddam Hussein.
Trump’s mere survival, through all these controversies, has made him seem somehow bulletproof, a second Teflon Don.
Except that he’s not. Drip by drip, the scandals are drowning him. How do we know? Because he shouldn’t be merely surviving; he should be winning.
In a race against an extremely unpopular Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, at a time of flagging economic growth and weak wages, the Republicans should have a real electoral advantage. But Trump can’t seize that advantage — partly because he’s so divisive.
This isn’t just spitballing or speculation. For decades now, political scientists have been building models that can predict the outcome of presidential elections based on a few basic criteria — without even looking at the polls. Check the state of the economy, factor in any incumbency advantage, see how popular the sitting president is, and, with a little math, you can guess the vote totals within a few percentage points — and most years the popular vote matches the outcome in the Electoral College.
According to these kinds of models, the Republicans should be ahead.
One of the best performing election predictors comes from the Emory University Political Scientist Alan Abramowitz. Using just a few simple variables, Abramowitz has successfully called every popular vote winner since 1992 — months in advance and with roughly the same accuracy as Gallup’s final November poll (note that means his model leaned toward Al Gore in 2000).
This time around, his model predicts a 2-point Trump victory. Why? Because the weak US economy encourages a “throw the bums out” attitude among voters, and the “bum” in the White House happens to be a Democrat.
Abramowitz isn’t alone among forecasters whose time-tested models are coming up Trump. Ray Fair is an economist at Yale University whose approach leans heavily on economic variables — and his numbers give the Republicans a 10-point advantage. The website PollyVote, which assembles an average of these “econometric models,” finds the consensus view is roughly Trump plus 2 percentage points.
Of course, in the real world, Trump isn’t doing nearly this well. He trails by 4 to 5 points in the polling average calculated by RealClearPolitics, while betting markets such as PredictIt give him a roughly 30 percent chance of victory. And this is not some recent plunge; it’s been the basic story all year, with a brief tightening during convention season, when polls are known to be volatile.
There’s a reason this year’s polls don’t match the econometric models: Trump isn’t a model candidate. This whole “calculate-the-election-in-advance” approach is built around the idea that parties will nominate “generic” candidates or standard-bearers who can be counted on to run a relatively professional campaign.
Trump is something else: a divisive, scandal-prone candidate who’s had difficulty proving his preparedness for office. During his expectation-defying run, he’s been critiqued by leaders from his own party, repudiated by conservative intellectuals, and roundly rejected in a series of high-profile newspaper editorials.
All this contentiousness comes with a cost. Donald Trump is poised to lose an election that Republicans should be winning.
We can even pin a rough number on the damage caused by Trump’s propensity for controversy. It’s about 9 million lost votes. That’s how many people should be voting for the Republican candidate, according to the models of the popular vote, but who aren’t ready to vote for this Republican (he’s behind 4 to 5 points in the polls when a generic candidate should be up around 2 points, a swing of around 9 million votes).
Part of this shortfall may come from Trump’s relatively weak ground game and his inability to match Clinton’s fund-raising. But a big chunk surely is derived from his penchant for controversial and offensive rhetoric.
So even if this latest attack on the Khan family ends up in the same well of controversies that has already swallowed Trump’s disparaging remarks about a Hispanic judge and the charges of fraud against Trump University, that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. Each new scandal reignites questions about Trump’s fitness and judgment.
And the cumulative effect is that there are now millions of American voters who are tired of Democratic rule and ready to hand the economic reigns to a Republican — but who nonetheless balk at the prospect of President Trump. And that could well be the difference in November.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.