The polls suggest that this election will not be the Democratic landslide many had dared to envision this summer. Recent polls suggest that it will be decided by less than five points, as in 2012, 2004 and 2000, and that the Democrats are unlikely to make significant gains in Congress. A close election was to be expected under normal circumstances, but Republican nominee Donald J. Trump is not a normal presidential candidate. He is neither informed nor consistent on public policy, he has questionable ethics as a businessman and he has offended almost every group in the United States outside of his core constituency of old white men.
Mr. Trump is such an outlier that many expected the suspension of some basic rules of presidential politics. For example, political parties rarely succeed at winning three consecutive presidential elections; not since Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 has a party increased its winning margin the third time out. (Since then, the incumbent party has lost ground nine times after controlling the White House for two terms.) There is the “14-Year Rule,” or the theory that, as Jonathan Rauch wrote in the Atlantic, “No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.” (It took Ronald Reagan 14 years; Hillary Clinton is trying to do it in 16.) Finally, there is the unlikelihood of the incumbent party winning when there is such widespread dissatisfaction with the economy. A recent CBS poll found 55 percent of voters calling the economy “bad” and the same percentage wanting “big changes” in politics and the economy. The fundamentals add up to a bad year for the Democrats.
It would take a superbly talented politician to beat those odds—or a lucky one. Immediately after the two parties’ conventions, it seemed that Hillary Clinton would fall into the latter category, having the good fortune to run against someone as patently unsuited for the presidency as Mr. Trump.
Unfortunately for Mrs. Clinton, voters do not always pick the more qualified or experienced candidate. If they did, after all, we wouldn’t need to hold elections. Mrs. Clinton is the quintessential résumé candidate, but becoming president of the United States is not like becoming president of a university or being named managing partner of a law firm. You can’t get there by sheer diligence or by establishing good relationships with co-workers. Winning a national election against the odds faced by Democrats this year takes extraordinary political skills, and so far Mrs. Clinton has not demonstrated them. She has not come up with a rationale for her candidacy that would appeal to the majority of voters seeking change, something that is often a problem for dynasty candidates. (See Jeb Bush or, most infamously, Ted Kennedy in the 1980 election.) She has been slow to react, if at all, to stories like Ford moving auto-assembly jobs to Mexico and Wells Fargo executives receiving huge bonuses even after the bank was discovered to have created millions of fraudulent accounts. The attitude of the Clinton campaign seems to have been to assume, with Mr. Trump as her opponent, that voters literally have no choice in November. Voters never like hearing that.
A few days before the first presidential debate, on Sept. 26, Mrs. Clinton is barely ahead of Mr. Trump in national polls, and she is losing ground in predictable places. When there is a national movement against the party in the White House, it is usually stronger in rural areas and smaller cities between the coasts. That’s where Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did well in the years they captured the White House, but Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made significant gains in these areas. By contrast, major urban centers like New York and Washington are usually slower to turn away from the incumbent party—not too surprising, since they are not the kind of places where the closing of a single factory can cause widespread panic about the future. Hillary Clinton is doing just fine in the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas, but she is struggling in states like Iowa and Ohio. This may provoke disbelief in Manhattan, but it is not a surprising development.
Sexism and Media Bias
Among Democrats, there are two popular theories for Mrs. Clinton’s inability to maintain a strong lead in the polls. One is sexism. The thinking is that U.S. voters (and men in particular) have an irrational dislike of women who claim leadership positions. Sexism is indeed an enduring problem in American society, but I don’t think it’s powerful enough to overcome partisanship. Racism is at least as intractable in the United States, but President Obama was elected in 2008 because almost all Democratic-leaning voters supported him, as well as a sizable number of independents who had turned against the incumbent Republican Party because of the Iraq War and a serious financial crash. Mr. Obama won even though only a handful of African-Americans had ever been elected governor or U.S. senator, in contrast to the dozens of women in every region of the country who have been elected governor or U.S. senator before Mrs. Clinton’s nomination. (Or do Republican women elected governor in Nebraska and Oklahoma not count?) Mr. Obama surely received millions of votes from Americans with less-than-enlightened racial attitudes; hypothetical situations in social experiments could not predict how voters would act when faced with two real candidates.
Sexism remains a significant obstacle for women in every kind of workplace, but politics is one area where women are on an equal footing. (That is, if they raise enough money to run competitive campaigns; this has not been a problem for Hillary Clinton.) Women make up a majority of voters; if everyone voted their gender, it would be impossible for Clinton to lose. But in a mid-September Washington Post/ABC poll, Mrs. Clinton had a 12-point lead among women with college degrees and a 12-point deficit among women without college degrees. Among college-educated men, Mrs. Clinton was ahead by 1 point, which essentially means she is more popular with rich men than with poor women. Doubling down on the idea that Mrs. Clinton is the educated person’s only choice (or reviving Madeline Albright’s gender solidarity argument) may not help her in places like Youngstown, Ohio.
There is also the argument that Mrs. Clinton has been hurt by biased news coverage, and Mr. Trump has been correspondingly helped by outlets like The New York Times and CNN “normalizing” a campaign that promotes religious and ethnic bigotry while unsubtly encouraging violence against political opponents. All but the most partisan outlets have plenty of negative coverage of Mr. Trump—just about everything in the opinion or analysis categories of the biggest newspapers has been critical of the Republican nominee, even from conservative columnists—but critics object to the cable news channels giving Mr. Trump free airtime for events with no news value, as well as newspapers engaging in “false equivalence” by investigating the Clinton Foundation as much as the far sketchier Trump Foundation. Clinton supporters also criticized the “feeding frenzy” of the media’s coverage of her pneumonia diagnosis, which the candidate disclosed only after a YouTube video of her appearing to faint outside a 9/11 anniversary ceremony.
A lot of this coverage is driven by the demand for 24-hour content, even on newspaper websites; live coverage of Trump rallies probably came as a relief to CNN viewers sick of seeing the same news clips all day long (even if they “hate-watched” Mr. Trump). But Mrs. Clinton has also run a low-key campaign with few public events in the month after the conventions and, until recently, minimal interactions with the press. When she had a clear lead in the polls, Mrs. Clinton seemed content to run out the clock, hoping that Mr. Trump would continue to dominate the news with outrages such as insulting the family of a fallen American soldier. Mrs. Clinton has spent more than 20 times as much on campaign commercials as Mr. Trump has (though he may catch up in the final weeks before the election), but she has not responded well to news events or crafted a message that appeals to voters seeking change. (#ImWithHer is one of the worst campaign slogans of all time, better suited to the patronage politics of the 19th century than a candidate trying to shake the image of someone who prizes personal loyalty above all else.)
There is still a liberal fantasy that the mainstream media can squelch the Trump candidacy if they choose to—that they can create a moment like Edward R. Morrow denouncing Joe McCarthy or Walter Cronkite opposing the Vietnam War (two examples where powerful journalists followed where popular opinion was going anyway). But no media outlet has the authority or the audience that the big three broadcast networks used to have. According to a September Gallup poll, only 32 percent believe that the media “report the news fully, fairly and accurately”—down from 55 percent in 1999, when as media critic Dan Kennedy writes, “newspapers were profitable, the Big Three network newscasts were inviolable, and the cable news networks had not yet hit upon partisan shoutfests as a formula for filling hours of airtime at very little expense.” The survey found that 51 percent of Democrats trust the media as a whole, but only 30 percent of independents and 14 percent of Republicans do so.
Gallup’s Art Swift writes that mistrust of the media among Republicans is lower than at any time since his company started asking the question 20 years ago, and “With many Republican leaders and conservative pundits saying Hillary Clinton has received overly positive media attention, while Donald Trump has been receiving unfair or negative attention, this may be the prime reason their relatively low trust in the media has evaporated even more.” The extreme antipathy of the Republican base toward news sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR—along with social research indicating that when voters decide to support a candidate, they pretty much refuse to believe anything negative about that candidate—suggest that Mr. Trump’s current favorability rating of 39 percent (according the RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls) is as low as it is going to get. Mrs. Clinton, whose own favorability rating is 42 percent, could very well win solely on the basis of Mr. Trump’s unpopularity, but it’s a risky bet. She needs to make a case for her own candidacy, and this year that means convincing voters that she can bring change to Washington.