This fight isn’t going as planned. The conventional wisdom, as August drew to a close, was that Donald Trump’s campaign was in free-fall. Some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters had even begun to anticipate a landslide like 1964, when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater by 61-to-38 percent.
What a difference a couple of working weeks have made. Slumped in the Democratic corner, her haggard visage being fanned by anxious trainers, is Clinton, candidate of the status quo. Impatiently bouncing off the ropes on the other side of the ring is the overweight, orange-featured personification of very, very risky change. The status quo’s margin of advantage suddenly looks much smaller than anyone thought in the dog days of summer.
In the 13 most recent national polls, Clinton is ahead in just seven, and by margins of between one and five percentage points. The latest LA Times poll has Trump ahead by six points. Even the closely watched New York Times/CBS News poll of likely voters has the race tied, taking into account the substantial numbers of votes likely to go to the Libertarian and Green candidates. Moreover, Trump is now clearly ahead in the two most important battleground states, Ohio and Florida.
So what has changed? The easy answer is that Clinton has just had her worst week of the campaign. It began a week ago Friday, when she dismissed “half” of Trump’s supporters as belonging in “the basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.” It continued two days later, when she lost her balance at an event to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, forcing her campaign to admit that she is suffering from pneumonia, a fact she had evidently hoped to conceal. Yet there is something more profound going on here, which explains why these missteps had such a big impact.
Last week, Clinton’s supporters seized on new economic data from the Census Bureau showing that median household income rose by more than 5 percent in real terms last year. Poverty is down. So is the number of Americans without health insurance. So is unemployment.
All this seems like grist to the mill of a campaign that essentially promises continuity. Yet there is a problem. Take another look at those figures for inflation-adjusted median household income. Yes, it was $56,500 last year, up from $53,700 the year before. But back in 1999 it was $57,909. In other words, it’s been a round trip — and a very bumpy one indeed — since Clinton’s husband was in the White House.
Telling Americans that they are nearly back to where they were 17 years ago and then expecting them to be grateful looks like a losing strategy. When two thirds of Americans — and even higher percentage of older white voters — say the country is on the wrong track, they are not (as Democrats claim) in denial about the Obama administration’s achievements. They are saying that the country is on a circular track, and has been since this century began.
To see why Trump is gaining on Clinton, despite his numerous flaws as a candidate, just compare their economic policy proposals. With Clinton you get more of the same: more spending (approximately $1.5 trillion over the next decade)—a large proportion of it on infrastructure—paid for by higher taxes on richer households, plus more regulation, especially of banks and pharmaceutical companies. Call it Obama+: the trains go round in circles, the government keeps on growing, but the economy as a whole limps along at 2% a year.
By comparison, Trump offers acceleration along a new track, albeit at the risk of derailment. This is true even when he is on his best, scripted behavior, as he was on Thursday at the Economic Club of New York. Much of this speech was red meat for the Republican establishment he needs to keep on board: tax simplification and tax cuts, increased spending on defense and border security and deep cuts in environmental and consumer-protection regulation. Ironically, the Keynesian economists who support Clinton are on the wrong side, because even the Trump campaign admits his tax cuts would cost $4.4 trillion over the decade. He, not Clinton, is the true candidate of stimulus, as his budgets would only come close to balancing if growth went up to 3.5 percent a year.
And on top of all that are Trump’s earlier pledges to restrict immigration, free trade and offshoring, pledges that are especially appealing to those Americans who feel most pessimistic about the future.
Neither candidate is trusted by much more than a third of voters, but Trump is clearly the riskier candidate. Less than a third of voters regard him as a safe choice, compared with close to half who have that view of Clinton. On the economy and jobs, however, Trump leads Clinton, 51-to-43 percent. And when it comes to “bringing about real change in Washington,” Trump leads by 48-to-36 percent.
The prediction markets and political pundits still have her as the favorite. I am not so sure. This fight really isn’t going as planned.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.