When Donald Trump expressed regret for causing “personal pain,” he might as well have been apologizing to Republicans alarmed at the way he has run his campaign since accepting the party’s nomination. Yet, for all his problems, Trump is still within striking distance in national polling. For that, he can thank the bad headlines that Hillary Clinton just can’t seem to shake.
It’s been a disastrous summer for Trump. If you think of campaigns like a boxing match, then from time to time candidates are going to find themselves against the ropes. The measure of a good candidate is how quickly he or she can get off the ropes and back on offense. Trump not only can’t seem to get back into the ring, he keeps punching himself in the face.
Trump can layer in new people, as he’s done, even soften his tone on his signature issue of immigration, but that won’t fix some of his bigger problems: a lack of resources, no organization in the states, and a strategy that seems to change day to day depending on the candidate’s mood.
Now the race is at a stage where the most valuable commodity is time, and that is rapidly depleting. Every day is scored by who won and who lost, and the last day Trump had an unqualified win was the night he addressed his own convention. That was a month ago, a lifetime in politics.
That’s the bad news for Trump. The surprising news is the Real Clear Politics polling average has Trump trailing Clinton by just 5.5 points. In a four-way race with Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Clinton’s lead shrinks to 4.3 points. Trump has stayed close despite being vastly outspent and, until now, not having run a single negative ad against Clinton.
As Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, put it: “We’ll look back at these two weeks . . . and say, why in the world didn’t Hillary Clinton’s campaign totally put us away?"
The reason is, despite all the turmoil in the Trump campaign, Clinton has not been able to solve her biggest problem, which is that people don’t trust her. Only 11 percent of voters in a recent NBC News/Survey Monkey poll think Clinton is “honest and trustworthy.” Each news cycle seems to bring new grounds to doubt her integrity.
This week, the Associated Press reported that half the people outside of government who met with Clinton as secretary of state donated to the Clinton family charity. Also, a judge ordered the State Department to fast-track a review of 15,000 previously undisclosed e-mails the FBI discovered during an investigation of Clinton’s e-mail server. Both stories contradict what Clinton has told the public: that there is no connection between her work as secretary of state and the Clinton Foundation, and that she turned over all her work-related e-mails to the State Department in 2014.
No wonder leading Democratic Senate candidates, like US Representative Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona and Governor Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, are reluctant to vouch for Clinton’s trustworthiness on camera.
Trump’s campaign predicts future polling will grow tighter with each passing week. That may be true, but not if Trump continues to roil the race with controversies of his own making.
If you make an error in a campaign, or find yourself at a momentary disadvantage, you can count on some counterbalancing event happening, and a momentum shift takes place. The same can happen now if Trump allows the race to become about Clinton. If he does, the summer of Trump might just turn into the fall of Clinton.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.