Is this it, folks? Is this how the 2016 election will end? Not with a bang, but with a blowout?
Crunching the numbers from the most recent batch of opinion polls, we find that Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump in the race for president by eight percentage points nationwide. Breaking it down state-by-state—as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight continues to do better than any other human—it appears that, if the election were held today, Clinton would defeat Trump in the Electoral College by a score of 364-174—the largest victory since Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole in 1996. Specifically, Hillary would win every state Barack Obama won in 2012, plus North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia—the last of which no Democratic candidate has won since 1992.
Again, that’s all based on the numbers today. If we based it on the numbers yesterday, Clinton would win North Carolina but not Arizona or Georgia. If we backed up a few days more, she would still prevail, but only by a hair.
From this, we can draw one of two completely different conclusions: Either a) today’s polls are too hyperactive to be taken seriously three months before the fact, or b) Clinton’s numbers will continue to rise—and Trump’s will continue to fall—resulting in the most lopsided presidential election result since Ronald Reagan won 49 states in 1984.
Deep down, everyone knows the correct answer is “a.” Even if the polls themselves can be taken at face value—a dubious proposition, at best—an awful lot of nonsense can occur over the next 91 days—particularly when at least one candidate has a vested interest in chaos and a proven knack for generating it himself.
Which is all to say that this week’s stats mean very close to nothing, since they will soon be superseded by next week’s stats—themselves the result of various unforeseen events—and not even Nate Silver can anticipate the unexpected. By the second Tuesday of November—some 13 weeks hence—no one will remember a thing about what happened in the first week of August.
That is, unless they do. Unless we look back—say, on November 9th—and conclude that the week-and-a-half following the Democratic National Convention marked the moment when all the pieces of this wild election finally fell into place. When—after a year of dithering—a convincing majority of Americans finally took a long, hard look at Donald Trump and said, “This man is a terrible human being. For the love of God, let’s vote for literally anybody else.”
If Clinton wins this election—particularly if she wins big—that’s exactly what we will say, and we will be absolutely right. If her suddenly-commanding lead holds for the duration and Trump goes down in ignominious defeat, we will mark this period as the tipping point, noting—among other things—the veritable avalanche of Republican lawmakers and dignitaries who have publicly—and seemingly in unison—declared their opposition to letting Donald Trump anywhere near the Oval Office, voicing their disgust with their party’s nominee in no uncertain terms.
If all goes according to plan, these past several days will have been when America finally ended its flirtation with a bizarro fantasy world and snapped back into reality once and for all.
Now, I’m not holding my breath on this, and neither should anybody else (particularly Hillary Clinton). But let’s run with this Trump-is-toast theory for a moment, if only to take a crack at a question Salman Rushdie recently posed on Real Time with Bill Maher: “What is Trump’s kryptonite? What is the thing that is finally going to get him?”
Up until now, we have never quite figured that one out, since every absurd, embarrassing incident that was supposed to sink Trump’s candidacy has only made him more popular with his peeps—hence the funhouse mirror feel of this whole ridiculous experience.
So—now that it appears Candidate Trump may well be mortally wounded—what exactly happened? What was different about the last few weeks—compared to the 13 months that preceded them—to finally get it into people’s heads that this man is fundamentally unfit for the highest office in the land?
As we ponder this great mystery, let us step back and realize that we are talking about an extremely small, select group of our fellow citizens. Whatever people may tell pollsters, it seems safe to say that the number of voting Americans who have yet to form an opinion of Donald Trump—be it positive or negative—could probably fit comfortably inside a single conference room of a local Marriott. (Perhaps we should keep them there until they make up their minds.)
The truth is that, when it comes to Trump—and, by turns, the election—90-something percent of us are totally unreachable, convinced either that he is the greatest thing since gluten-free bread or is, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “an extinction-level event.”
Puzzling over why Trump has proved so impervious to his own faults is a bit like asking why trans fats haven’t stopped most of us from eating red meat: We Americans do whatever we damn well please, and we won’t let trivial considerations like heart disease or nuclear war induce us into altering our behavior.
That is, except for a few us every now and again.
So sure, maybe Trump’s insane confrontation with a Gold Star family pushed some voters over the edge—even though he has slandered other military heroes in the past. Maybe the relentless parade of anti-Trump speeches at the Democratic National Convention convinced fence-sitters of things that a year’s worth of Trump’s own behavior had not. Maybe this unprecedented coming-out of #NeverTrump Republicans has underlined this man’s unhinged, unprincipled narcissism more persuasively than when it came from the mouths of liberal Democrats. Or maybe it has simply been the cumulative effect of all the above and more occurring at roughly the exact same moment.
Whatever. Call me a snob, but I’ve found myself rapidly losing interest in the psychology of someone who looks upon the face of an authoritarian and finds something—anything—to like. If you are repelled by Trump keeping a crying baby from entering a rally but are attracted to him keeping 1.6 billion Muslims from entering the United States, I welcome your defection to #TeamHillary but I don’t anticipate that we would ever have much to talk about. Indeed, in a normal election, there’s no way we would ever wind up on the same team, but then—as Ezra Klein so eloquently explained on Vox—this has not been a great year for normal.
By rights, the 2016 election was supposed to be a referendum on Barack Obama, a two-term incumbent whose legacy Hillary Clinton has promised to carry on without interruption. And yet, instead, the race has become a referendum on Donald Trump. Why? Because Trump’s character has made it impossible for us to concentrate on anything else. His abject rottenness had subsumed every other variable in this race.
And why on Earth shouldn’t it? In government, as in medicine, first you must do no harm, and Trump is a seven-alarm cataclysm within striking distance of the West Wing.
He doesn’t just need to lose: He needs to lose spectacularly. He needs to go down in the general election like he should’ve gone down in the Republican primaries: With the metaphorical force of a 16-ton anvil. He needs to be humiliated and made an example of for all future demagogues who think they can rise to the top by sinking to the bottom.
Or—if you’d prefer a more positive spin—Hillary Clinton needs to win by a lot more than eight points. She needs to crush it like she’s never crushed anything before. She needs to be elected in such a ridiculous landslide that, 20 or 30 years from now, we will have totally forgotten the name of the poor schmuck she ran against.
As we know, history is written by the winners. Never in our lifetimes have we encountered someone who deserved to lose bigger and more urgently than Trump.