The Republican candidate’s performance in the debate has not changed the raceby / October 10, 2016 / Leave a comment
Nervously, Donald Trump marches on. The self-proclaimed champion of the American white male working class will go down fighting, in a farcical re-enactment of Custer’s last stand. This is what we can conclude after the second presidential debate. The day after, the data journalism website Fivethirtyeight.com gives Trump only an 18 per cent chance of being elected on 8th November. As political scientist Larry Sabato points out, “In the broad sweep of US history, very occasionally one of the major parties simply disqualifies itself from the contest to win the White House by nominating an unelectable, non-mainstream candidate. We suspect that there will never be a better example than Donald Trump.”
In many states, early voting has already started. Most Americans have a firm opinion about the two candidates and will vote accordingly. This was apparent in the behaviour of both Hillary Clinton and Trump on Sunday night. Both candidates catered to their respective bases, Hillary focused on women and “The Donald” on white men without a college degree.
Clinton had the easier role: 44 years after Richard Nixon and Watergate, a secret tape again threatens to doom the career of a Republican politician. The 2005 recording of Trump bragging about his Casanova-like performances has been widely condemned not only as vulgar and disrespectful to women but for his apparent advocacy of sexual assault. The Democratic candidate simply had to stress that “This is the real Donald Trump.” As the electorate in the United States is around 52 per cent female, it was a cake walk for her.
The Donald had a more urgent and difficult task: stopping the other Republican candidates’ stampede towards the exit. On Friday and Saturday, GOP politicians feigned suddenly discovering that Trump was not the boyfriend that a girl wants to introduce to her parents. Incumbent Senators in close races called his attitude toward women “unacceptable” or worse. Never mind that what surfaced in the tape was nothing different from what the Republican challenger has said and tweeted before.
Trump was apparently successful in navigating this situation. During the debate he was able to show a disciplined persona, use some good lines prepared by his handlers, and remain focused on Clinton’s supposed malfeasances. It was probably not enough to swing undecided voters, but it was a necessary fig-leaf to allow the two top Republican officials, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to continue “supporting” him.
But his failure to win over women may prove crucial. In the US, women tend to vote Democratic more often than men, a pattern seen in presidential elections since 1968. In 1996, Bill Clinton won re-election with 54 per cent of the female vote and 43 per cent of the male—a gender gap of 11 points. Barack Obama’s winning margin in 2012 was almost as large.
Polls have not captured this dynamic: instead, they have looked like a rollercoaster, in which the two candidates are in a dead heat one week only to lose contact the next. But the reality is that US elections are strongly influenced by demographics: women and ethnic minorities favour Democrats, white men prefer Republicans. Most likely, Trump’s fate will be sealed not by his utterances but by the fact that there are more and more of the former, and less and less of the latter. The electoral college also favours the Democrats and in further good news for Clinton, recent polls show her ahead in the bellwether states of Ohio and Florida.
Now, the real issue is what will happen to Congress, and more generally to the American political environment, after a two-year presidential campaign that has sunk into the gutter.