The race, coming out of the Labor Day gates, seems to have stabilized--or maybe metastasized. Clinton leads by 3-4 points nationally, has a substantial lead in PA, and might be too sick to continue the race--or maybe not. Trump's supporters are gleeful that their "conspiracy theories" about her health have been proven correct (except that the theories are that she has a neurological disease of some sort--not that she has pneumonia) and we are now about 2 weeks out from the first debate.
The first debate, barring various colors of Swan, will probably be the key event in September and may be the key event in the race. If, for example, Hillary is too ill to participate, she will probably lose / have to drop. If Trump manages an upset by either virtue of low-expectations or secret prep, the race could close to near even or even put Trump ahead.
If Hillary looks spry and dominates him, it's probably the last chance he had of real events to turn things around.
So that's the state-of-play.
The underlying foundation of the 2016 race is that all the standards of political decorum that had previously existed no longer do. Back in 2008 neither Hillary as a candidate nor McCain as a nominee challenged Barack Obama's birth. In both 2008 and 2012 the opposing nominees rejected attacks on Obama using (a) falling Twin Towers and his ex-pastor's voice over saying "God Damn America!" and (b) an attack ad designed to to imply that Obama was a foreign-inspired black radical.
The Basket of Deplorables
Today, were Obama running, that's what Trump would do.
There's almost no doubt about it whatsoever.
Where before now candidates might imply, surrogates might mention, and supporters would scream about conspiracy theories, today the candidate is talking conspiracy theories and his vice presidential nominee is saying he doesn't go in for the 'name calling.'
On the flip side Hillary called half of Trump's supporters 'Deplorables.' So is it both sides?
No. It's not.
Firstly the math suggests that depending on how you define a Trump-supporter (a person whose first pick was always Trump seems like a reasonable standard) Hillary might be understating the case if you think arguing that the South should have won the Civil War is deplorable.
To be sure, polling data does not look good for Trump supporters if you count his native base.
Secondly, unarguably, Trump inspires the Alt-Right and White Supremacists in ways no other candidate since George Wallace has. He is the candidate of the KKK. The fact that his victory would be empowering to them makes anyone associating themselves with him suspect:
- Either they are ignorant or in denial about what his win would mean --or--
- They (by some logic) judge Hillary to be a worse threat to the fabric of America than a KKK-favorite
Either way, this is a problem--and it's a problem on the face of the facts--not name calling.
The Immoderate Debate
Trump has started calling for a debate without moderators. This makes sense on two fronts. The first is that the media has decided they have to start fact-checking him in real-time (see CNN's Chyrons, the text under the news story, where they are 'correcting his record' as the story plays on TV). The second is that Trump's appeal, for now, has a certain ceiling (perhaps 40%). The debate will be his first real appearance for a lot of people and if he can nail it, he can break that barrier even if Hillary's health gets better.
The problem with moderators is that they're going to interfere with what has been his strategy thus far--to say what he wants to be true--and say it forcefully--to overpower his opponents or interviewers.
In a free-for-all it'll be his word vs. Hillary's. With a moderator, that won't be as easy.
The second issue that in 2012 Candy Crowley sand-bagged Romney with her 'fact-check' of his assessment Obama's Rose Garden speech on Benghazi. Now, there are a lot of nuances to argue here but it's hard to argue against the fact that (a) Romney's strategy was the wrong one anyway and (b) Romney didn't otherwise have that debate in the bag like the first one.
Even so, it appears likely that Trump will amplify his calls for a moderator-less debate because of the first set of reasons and will gain substantial support from Republicans because of the second. It seems very unlikely that the debate committee will bow to Trump's demands--but that will give Trump some air-cover to skip the debates. If he does, he will potentially undermine Clinton's best chance at a comeback if she is tied or behind. It will also, potentially, deprive her of a chance to open a substantial lead if she can seriously out-debate him.
This strategy is likely not to be a winner: Americans expect their candidates to debate and ducking it probably won't play well--but this looks like where Trump is signaling so we'll see.
Back in 2012 the idea was going to be that the gloves would come off and Team Romney would say the things that McCain wasn't going to. This was partially because they tested saying those things and found it didn't help--it hurt. That was against a very charismatic Obama. Against a much less charismatic Hillary, though, that might not be the case and Donald Trump is testing it. Hillary Clinton is testing it. The 2016 race is already ugly. It'll probably get worse.