There is extraordinary interest, as ever, in the race for the White House here in Ireland. The question being posed by just about all Irish onlookers is “how is Hillary not way ahead?” This is invariably followed by “he’s not really going to get elected, is he?” While my own answer to the second question is still no, the first one is more difficult to address. Yet it’s one that will animate the direction and tenor of her campaign for the next seven weeks.
Yet when you count the Brexit vote, the rise of right wing parties in Europe and Ireland's own confused recent election, there should be a little less surprise that Trump is shown considerable strength despite all the condemnation. “May you live in interesting times” as the Chinese might say - and that phrase was meant as a curse.
While most seasoned observers did not expect that the considerable lead in the polls enjoyed by Hillary Clinton in August would survive through November, few thought that Donald Trump would rebound to the extent that he has after Labour Day. In the Real Clear Politics aggregate of the national polls, there is less than one percentage point between the two candidates.
And the aggregates of polls in battleground states now show Trump leading in Florida, Ohio and Iowa. He’s breathing down Clinton’s neck in Nevada and North Carolina. Notwithstanding the fact that she has a significant Electoral College advantage and will benefit from the higher turnout of racial minorities and young people in a presidential election year, this is a very close contest at present.
If I were a member of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle, I would be advocating an emphasis on three specific objectives. And in an overarching sense, I would argue strenuously that the penchant for hyper-caution, secrecy and obfuscation has been manifestly disastrous. The campaign and the candidate must be more open and far less guarded. It’s not enough to simply be the “anti-Trump.”
First is that she needs to take on the issues millions of Americans have with her character. Polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the electorate find her dishonest and untrustworthy. Many men and women say that they just don’t like her. Suffice it to say that such sentiments are not conducive to garnering votes.
The fact is that Hillary Clinton is not going to win over the haters. She has been a public figure for decades and has made a lot of enemies. Some voters, for instance, have never forgiven her remark during her husband’s presidential campaign in 1992 that, instead of pursuing a successful career as a lawyer and activist, she could have “stayed home and baked cookies.” They will never cast a ballot for her.
Love always trumps hate. pic.twitter.com/gsIDBvBrCx— Hillary for America (@HFA) September 17, 2016
But there are many Americans who, whether because of her email server, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, or other elements of her past, have quite legitimate reservations about electing her to be the leader of the western world. In order to convince these voters otherwise, she must speak to them directly and candidly and, rather than issuing carefully crafted denials and weak attempts at contextualisation, admit that she has made mistakes and apologise for them.
Admitting past mistakes and vowing to learn from them would help to humanise her and would contrast nicely with her opponent, who claims to have never made a mistake. Indeed, the one occasion in which Hillary Clinton truly let her guard down and showed some emotion is widely credited as catapulting her to a come from behind win over Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary in 2008.
When responding to a question in a meeting with voters, Hillary nearly broke down in tears. Her voice cracking, she said, “I couldn't do it if I didn't just passionately believe it was the right thing to do. I have so many opportunities from this country and I just don't want to see us fall backwards as a nation. This is very personal for me. It's about our country; it's about our kids' futures; it's really about all of us together.”
Clinton needs to show this kind of compassion at every opportunity, on stages large and small alike. She needs to go out and win this election for herself. In so doing, she needs to be mindful that, if she prevails, she will be president not just for those who supported her, but also for those who didn’t. They are not a “basket of deplorables” to be scorned at glitzy fundraisers in Manhattan. They are Americans who are hurting and are desperate enough to believe in the simplistic solutions offered by a demagogue.
Second is that the campaign must double down on its grass roots and get out the vote efforts. Donald Trump, by the admission of his own party’s operatives, has almost no field organisation anywhere. The Clinton campaign has numerous offices in all of the key states and can call upon thousands of volunteers to make phone calls, knock on doors and drive people to their voting places. It’s not sexy or glamorous, and won’t make headlines, but this is how elections are won or lost.
In particular, maximising the turnout of African Americans in states like Pennsylvania and Florida is crucial. In this regard, the campaign must lean very hard on President Obama, who is still very popular and whose legacy is at least partly dependent on Hillary Clinton succeeding him in the oval office, to persuade them to go out and vote on November 8th.
Lastly, Clinton has to win the debates. Although most political scientists agree that presidential debates don’t typically have much impact on the ultimate election result, 2016 may prove different. Largely because of the global fascination with Donald Trump, the television audience for the first debate on September 26th will be enormous. Clinton should exploit Trump’s woeful command of detail and of facts. At the same time, she must seek to make him appear totally unfit for the presidency. Provoking his legendary temper is one means of doing so.
Despite the tightening in the polls, there is no reason for the Clinton campaign to panic. Hillary Clinton remains in pole position and will likely be the next President of the United States. But it will be fascinating to watch just how she endeavours to “seal the deal” with the American people. The world will stay tuned.
* Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com and TheJournal.ie.