By tradition the presidential campaign begins in earnest on Labor Day. This year I questioned that premise. Its assumption is that normal people don’t start paying attention until September. That’s probably been true in the past. But this time normal people have been paying attention all year. Donald Trump’s candidacy was a sensation—you couldn’t not see him or hear him. In another way people have been paying attention for a quarter-century, which is how long Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump have been famous in America. Everyone knows what they think; everyone knows their impression of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.
But not everyone knows how they’ll vote—him, her, third- or fourth-party, write-in. The polls are tightening and no one is sure why. A Reuters/Ipsos poll through Aug. 29 had Mrs. Clinton at 40%, Mr. Trump at 38% among likely voters. A Rasmussen poll ending Aug. 31 had Mrs. Clinton at 39%, Mr. Trump at 40%. A Fox News poll ending the same day had Mrs. Clinton at 41% and Mr. Trump at 39%. As to the battleground states, a Marquette University Law School poll out this week had Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump 45% to 42% in Wisconsin among those who said they’ll definitely vote in November. That sounds solid, but three weeks ago Mrs. Clinton had a 15-point lead.
And Mr. Trump’s successful trip to Mexico, in which he stood at separate podiums with a president, trading niceties, seeming comfortable—seeming like a normal political figure—followed by his base-rousing immigration speech in Arizona, came after these polls were taken. A Trump supporter told/spun me that it was a Nixon-to-China moment, which it was not. Nixon knew exactly what he was doing and why, the diplomacy of it had been long and secretly arranged, and it wasn’t driven by immediate political need but by America’s strategic requirements.
But if the polls are right, things are moving, and not in Mrs. Clinton’s direction. I’d thought people’s views of Mr. Trump were by now indelible and unchangeable: He’d been branded, by himself. Maybe that’s true. We’ll know in retrospect. But maybe he can nudge his numbers a little. Can Mrs. Clinton?
We’re used to attributing everything by default to Mr. Trump—what’s he done now? But maybe the fact of Trump isn’t driving things, but the central fact of Hillary. It is a fact we all know so well that we factor it in and forget it. It is that people view her as both untruthful and untrustworthy. A Fox News poll out this week said an astounding 74% of respondents said they believe Mrs. Clinton would do anything to be president (68% said the same of Mr. Trump). A Washington Post/ABC News poll also this week showed Mrs. Clinton’s image at an all-time low. Among registered voters, 59% view her unfavorably (60% view Mr. Trump unfavorably). The Post: “If it weren’t for Trump, in fact, Clinton would be the most unpopular major-party presidential nominee in modern American history.” Think of that, in someone well known to Americans for 25 years.
Reading the Fox story reminded me of a moment last February in New Hampshire, during the primaries. It was a weekend night. I was at one of her rallies in a high-school gym in a handsome suburb. It was well-organized—good lighting and security, a buzzy crowd. Mrs. Clinton was introduced and she bounded out—blue pantsuit, well made-up, high-energy, pointing out friends, real or imagined, in the crowd. I thought: Give it to her, she’s 60-something, she’s out in America working the room, making the speech, enacting the joy, when she could be home on a Saturday night watching TV.
Then it struck me. If she weren’t here, she’d be in an empty house in Chappaqua, N.Y., the focus of no eyes—not important, not glamorous, no aides or staffers. I thought: She needs to run, it’s this or reruns on Bravo. I thought: This is why you pick up that there is no overarching purpose, theme or mission to her candidacy—because there isn’t. There is only her need—not to be powerless, not to be away from the center. It’s not The America Project, it’s The Hillary Project.
You see that a lot in politicians, but not always those running for president. That night I think I saw it in her.
This connects in my mind with 1992. By November of that year I thought the close presidential contest would come down to a battle between depression and anxiety. If you imagined picking up a newspaper the morning after the election and saw “Bush Re-elected,” you might feel blue—same old same old, 12 years of Republican rule turning into 16. If it said “Clinton Wins,” you might feel anxiety—we never even heard of this guy until six months ago, an obscure Arkansas governor! I figured that in America anxiety beats depression because it’s the more awake state.
There may be an aspect of that dynamic in this race. Mrs. Clinton is depression: You know exactly who she is, what trouble she brings—she always brings that sack full of scandal—and she won’t make anything better. Mr. Trump is anxiety: If you back him you know you’re throwing the long ball, a real Hail Mary pass to the casino developer and reality TV star who may or may not know how to catch the ball when catching the ball means everything. But he’s entertaining—he scrambles all categories, makes things chaotic. He has fun with his audience.
The crowd Wednesday night in Arizona reacted with joy when he asked if they were ready for the part about Mexico. His own supporters will tell you he may be a little crazy but not Caligula crazy, only drunk-uncle crazy. The Clinton campaign has a strong television ad out that shows Mr. Trump yelling and making faces. It warns at the end that a president only needs one mistake to make things go terribly wrong. It’s the sort of ad that would impress voters already convinced that he’s disqualified by temperament. But others might just think: Yeah, he talks like that sometimes, it’s part of the act.
Last week the pollster Peter Hart did a focus group, for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, of a dozen independent voters in Wisconsin. They saw 2016 as a fear-and-loathing election, loathing Mrs. Clinton (depression) and fearing Mr. Trump (anxiety). They thought Mrs. Clinton would win but described her as a lying and untrustworthy career politician. They saw Mr. Trump as reckless, inexperienced, “a bully and a loudmouth,” in the words of one participant. (Another compared him to the drunk uncle.) They had little optimism about America right now, using words like “political turmoil,” “unrest” and “downhill.” Asked if the 2016 election had a smell what would it be, their answers included “rotten eggs,” “skunk,” “stink” and “garbage.” Asked which political figures they admired in their lifetimes, one said Gerald Ford, one Bill Clinton, and about half said Ronald Reagan. They seemed to miss the idea of character.
Actually there seemed an undertone of fear that we’re not raising Fords and Reagans now, we’re raising Clintons and Trumps and it doesn’t bode well.