The tumultuous 2016 campaign is in a sudden limbo
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The most dramatic and unpredictable presidential election in decades is suddenly slipping into a strange state of suspended animation.
Donald Trump and his team, facing widening deficits in the polls, insist the Republican nominee can still win. But he and his allies seem to be increasingly contemplating the possibility of defeat.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is sizing up the challenges of a possible presidency at a time of deep polarization even as her aides say she’s taking nothing for granted.
With just over two weeks remaining before Election Day, much of the drama is shifting to Capitol Hill, where anxious Republican leaders — estranged from their nominee — can do little more than fret about how bad it could get. Trump’s stumbling campaign threatens to wipe out the GOP’s majority in the Senate — and maybe even the House.
Clinton will aim to build pressure on congressional Republicans Monday when she joins Sen. Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire to slam GOP lawmakers for standing by Trump. Her clear target: Kelly Ayotte, one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republicans who has struggled to grapple with Trump’s candidacy.
Trump has been counted out before, so it’s still too early to write him off. And voters — not polls and pundits — decide elections. But unless there is an abrupt Trump revival, another October surprise that could once again upend the race or a cataclysmic miss by the majority of pollsters, the Republican nominee seems to be on a glide path to defeat on November 8.
Too far behind
A new ABC News national poll released Sunday had Clinton 12 points up on Trump, clinching the support of 50% of likely voters nationwide. CNN’s Poll of Polls gives the Democratic a nine point edge. The mounting evidence seems to be fueling a realization in the Trump camp that he may be too far behind to catch up — with hundreds of thousands of ballots already cast in some early voting states.
Several times in recent days, the billionaire has appeared to be laying the groundwork for a defeat — whether with his claims of a rigged election that could be a face-saver if he loses — or in wistful musings about the days ahead.
“I don’t want to think back, if only I had done one more North Carolina rally maybe I would have won by 500 votes instead of losing it by 200 votes,” Trump said Friday, while adding a caveat that he still thinks he will win.
“I never want to look back,” he said. “I never want to say that about myself.”
Trump occasionally seemed tired on the stump over the weekend — though sometimes took heart from his large crowds. He was also less prone to depart his teleprompter for ad libs that land him in trouble.
In Newtown, Pennsylvania, on Friday night, the Republican nominee appeared to admit his campaign needed a significant boost.
“I’ve wasted time, energy, and money — so you’ve got to get out,” he said. “We got to turn this thing around.”
And last Tuesday, Trump, a connoisseur of polls, said he had even lost faith in the few surveys that have him ahead.
“Now even though we’re doing pretty good in the polls, I don’t believe in the polls anymore,” he said.
Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway admitted the campaign’s struggling position Sunday, but was loathe to give Clinton any credit for her lead.
‘We are behind’
“We are behind,” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“She has tremendous advantages,” Conway said of Clinton. “She has a former president, happens to be her husband, campaigning for her, the current president and first lady, vice president, all much more popular than she can hope to be.”
But if Trump is going down, he will do it his way.
He’s showing that he will continue to lash out, is happy to settle scores with GOP critics like House Speaker Paul Ryan while he still can, and will use the media spotlight to wage his own personal battles before the American people.
On Sunday night, the GOP nominee, who has spent months laying into establishment, pleaded with his supports to keep the House and Senate in Republican hands even as he groused that he would like the party to do more to boost his campaign.
“Go out and vote and that includes helping me reelect Republicans all over the place,” Trump said in Naples, Florida. “I hope they help me too! It’d be nice if they help us too, right?”
But a day earlier, in the symbolic surroundings of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he made clear that the campaign that was all about him from the start will end with him in the spotlight — even if it’s not in his best political interest. The event was billed as a chance for Trump to lay out a Contract With America-style agenda for his first 100 days as president in surroundings that resonate with a desire for national unity and reconciliation.
But Trump characteristically stole his own headlines, threatening to sue women who accused him of sexual assault after the election and lambasting the media for rigging the race against him.
Once again, he detracted from the meat of his message, which included detailed proposals on new ethics reforms and labeling China a currency manipulator along with plans to spark economic and jobs growth and a tough strategy to crush ISIS.
Speaking with Jake Tapper Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Conway declined to say if she knew that her boss would weave such a personally focused tirade into his Gettysburg speech.
‘This is his candidacy’
“He delivers his own speeches,” she said. “This is his candidacy. He’s the guy who is running for the White House. And he has the privilege to say what he wants.”
But Jane Hall, a professor of communications at American University, told CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday that Trump was being himself and displaying the indiscipline that has hurt his campaign.
“He wasn’t off message,” she said. “That is his message.”
Increasingly, Trump supporters are forced to cherry pick polls that show their candidate competitive, or to place their faith in crowd sizes and enthusiasm on the trail, metrics that often seem attractive to lagging campaigns.
Trump’s son Eric, for instance, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that he doesn’t put much “credence” in the ABC poll, denying he was in a “bubble” where Trump’s support seems broader than it is.
“He had 10,000 people in Cleveland,” Trump said. “You know, Hillary and — and Tim Kaine, they were in Pennsylvania. They had 600 people in a gym. I mean the enthusiasm levels are just totally — totally off the charts.”
Such thinking is not confined to Trump’s family.
Author JD Vance, author of a new book “Hillbilly Elegy” on the working class white voters that form Trump’s constituency, said the Republican nominee’s supporters don’t believe he is losing.
“I think a lot of folks think that the polls don’t reflect reality,” Vance said on CNN’s “Smerconish” on Saturday. “If Trump loses, as the polls tell us he will, I do think a lot of folks are going to be very surprised.”
Looking to Britain for inspiration
With the data looking ominous, other Trump supporters are looking for inspiration from voters in Britain, which voted to leave the European Union earlier this year in defiance of polls that suggested the opposite result.
“I do think there is a Brexit out there … I am almost positive there is a Brexit out there. I don’t know how big it is, I think that remains to be seen,” Andre Bauer, the former Republican Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina said on CNN on Thursday night.
One veteran Republican said privately Saturday that there are some senior members of the party who still believe Trump can win. But the Republican added that many of those making Trump’s case on television have already written him off.
The US Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has already made its call. The key Republican interest group is throwing money behind an ad backing Ayotte in New Hampshire, telling voters they must send her back to Washington to act as a check on the White House — with the clear implication that Clinton will be president.
Perhaps most galling to Trump, Clinton is signaling that she is looking past him — seeking a more positive, uplifting message as her campaign machinery gears up a formidable get-out-the-vote operation. She told reporters Saturday that she would no longer reply to his more controversial statements.
“I debated him for four and a half hours,” she said. “I don’t even think about responding to him anymore.”
She added: “I am going to let the American people decide about what he offers and what we offer.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported on Sunday that Clinton had already reached out to some Republican senators, including allies from her days on Capitol Hill, saying she hopes to work with them to govern. And in another sign the campaign is looking to the future, her running mate, Tim Kaine, named Wayne Turnage as his transition director.
Clinton’s team is also looking at expanding the electoral map in search of a more decisive victory than polls suggest is on the cards, moving into Arizona and considering a run at Utah — states that are typically solid GOP territory.
However, Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook told CNN’s Tapper on Sunday that no one is counting chickens.
“We don’t want to get ahead of skis here, so we’re just as focused on Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, other states as we have ever been,” Mook told Tapper. “We have a very clear message to our supporters: Let’s double down, nose to the grindstone, and keep working.”