Editor’s note: Head of state, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, guardian of the economy – Americans are fixing to elect another president, so we asked Notre Dame’s in-house pundit to put the moment, the issues, the candidates and the choices in context and perspective. Bob Schmuhl’s commentary on American politics and journalism frequently appears in major print and broadcast outlets in the U.S. and abroad. His exclusive observations on the 2016 presidential election will run on magazine.nd.edu every two weeks.
Every four years Americans learn anew that a presidential election is less a national fencing match than an array of brass-knuckle fistfights in a few select states.
Thanks to the Constitution’s second article, the Electoral College is the institutional barricade to direct democracy, making it impossible for any candidate to win the White House simply by accumulating the most votes.
As Al Gore found out in 2000, you can receive over a half-million more votes than your opponent and still never hear “Hail to the Chief” played as you enter a room. Assembling Electoral College support by winning individual states is all that really counts.
For 2016, this means that Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and their organizations are now spending most of their time studying maps of key states and individual counties. The trick, as you might recall from high school civics, is to put enough states in one candidate’s column to amass 270 electoral votes. In 2000, George W. Bush received 271 votes to Gore’s 266.
This year the number of battleground states varies, depending on your source of information. On the high end, the website RealClearPolitics highlights 16 possible ones: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire. (On August 24, The Wall Street Journal reported that 17 states are currently “Safe GOP” and 15 “Safe Democratic,” according to detailed analysis from four different sources.)
As the days dwindle down to November 8, the number of genuine battlegrounds will shrink to the five or six that will receive the lion’s share of candidate attention and advertising dollars. At this moment, the Trump campaign is focusing on what it sees as its four crucial states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, the first targets for major purchases of television commercials.
Taking these states — or at least three out of four — is critical for Trump to be victorious in the Electoral College. Most recent polls show him behind in all four. North Carolina stands within the margin of error but the others align much more solidly for Clinton — especially Pennsylvania, which hasn’t voted Republican since 1988.
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North Carolina deserves close watch. Barack Obama edged John McCain there in 2008 by 14,000 votes (out of 4.3 million cast), but the Democrats have lost the state every other time since Jimmy Carter won there in 1976. Bill Clinton, a Southerner like Carter, couldn’t swing Tar Heel voters his way in either 1992 or 1996.
However, since the first week of August, Hillary Clinton has led all the statewide polls conducted in North Carolina, and she currently enjoys an advantage of about 2 percent.
With new campaign leadership — Stephen Bannon as chief executive officer and Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager — Trump will try to improve his prospects in North Carolina and the other “super” battleground states. But he also needs to expand his reach on the Electoral College map by, for instance, trying to take Iowa, Nevada and Georgia, where Clinton enjoys modest leads at the moment.
Moreover, the Republican nominee has to do something that might be congenitally impossible for him. Difficult as it would be, Trump must find a way of dimming the spotlight on himself and shining as much light as he can on his opponent — her governmental record, her financial background, her email manipulation, and all the rest.
If the election is considered more of a referendum on Clinton than on Trump, the developer and reality-show personality will be the beneficiary. The current political climate favors an outsider, a person eager to disrupt, upset or shake-up the existing status quo.
Trump ticks all those boxes, but he weakens his candidacy with outrageous or misinformed statements that make voters scratch their heads about his approach in seeking the nation’s highest office.
He has a troubling habit of retroactively claiming he was being “sarcastic” after he’s offered pronouncements that seem straightforward — and dead serious. Repeatedly saying that President Obama is “the founder of ISIS” is one example of Trump’s loose lips.
Clinton, though, carries more baggage than a Morris Inn bellhop on a home football weekend. Every time she’s asked about the private email server she used while serving as secretary of state, she seems to dig herself into a deeper hole about her veracity. Arguing that she “short-circuited” her explanation of what she said to the FBI did nothing to clarify the controversial situation. The statement only provoked puzzlement about the meaning of “short-circuited.”
The recent reporting about the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising while she was in Obama’s cabinet prompts more questions than the Trump Tower has windows. Was governmental access involved? What was the cost? Who played a part?
With worrying consistency, neither Clinton nor Trump scores very well in the public’s perception of their honesty and truthfulness. One area, however, where the Democrat far outpaces the Republican concerns the “personality and temperament” traits to be an effective president.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released August 9 reported that 61 percent of those surveyed thought Clinton had the appropriate personality and temperament for the Oval Office. By contrast, only 31 percent considered Trump to have the right personality and temperament for the presidency.
What you might call “the temperament gap” could be decisive in battleground states and, more broadly, across the nation when all the ballots are counted on election night.
The upcoming presidential debates, especially the first one on September 26, will be influential to public opinion, either solidifying or changing it. Both candidates are well known by the electorate, but each raises significant, indeed unavoidable, questions — and those questions create doubt and uncertainty. Let’s hope that what happens during the next weeks will resolve at least some of these nagging concerns.
Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. This fall he’s teaching a class on American political culture and the 2016 election.