By Amrit Singh
The conventional wisdom says that the electorate really starts paying attention to the presidential election after Labor Day. By that logic, we are conventionally unwise — we've been staring this race in the face for what feels like 20 years, or at least as long as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been famous (i.e. over 20 years).
But whatever your degree of expertise, we can all agree that Labor Day is essentially the final mile-marker, and that with the dawning of autumn comes the blitz to the ballot box. In just two weeks, Hillary and Donald will square-off for the first of three debates — events that are likely to post Super Bowl-like ratings numbers because of just how bananas everything has been so far.
And it all comes down to these candidates Achilles' heels: Clinton has the knowledge and experience, but she loses style points every time she gets defensive about her numerous self-inflicted wounds (see: emails, Clinton Foundation, foreign policy record); Trump's invective charisma is custom-built for the age of the TV soundbite montage, but there's only so much you can dance around not having basic facts and experience. So here we are. And whether you've read every @FactsOnly or this is your first hurrah, here's a primer on what to watch for as we make this final sprint into history.
CAN HILLARY OVERCOME HER LOW PERCEPTION OF TRUSTWORTHINESS?
America isn't that into its major party presidential choices. We know this. Trump and Clinton's historically low likability and approval ratings are, in part, a function of a lifetime in the public eye (i.e. they've got baggage). But this seems to be a bigger deal for Hillary than Donald because, experientially and on paper, she is generally acknowledged as one of the best qualified candidates for the Presidency in our country's history. It's this lack of trust which clouds her candidacy, and it stems from her email controversy (which is about her handling of state secrets and her cagey response to questioning about it) and the implication of impropriety shrouding the Clinton Foundation (resting on the idea that rich foreign donors to the family's charitable operation had undue access to Hillary during her time as Secretary of State, the nation's preeminent foreign policy position). Hillary can't change the past, but she can control how she talks about it. She can be more consistent on her explanations. She can get better about how she apologizes, get clearer on what she's apologizing for, and figure out a consistent tone that avoids seeming aggravated, defensive, or impatient. Then again: She's been talking about this stuff forever, and she probably feels like she's sufficiently explained why, in her mind, it's all smoke and no fire. When you watch the debates, her body language on these points is where to key in.
WHICH DONALD: PROMPTER OR UNPROMPTED?
Amidst myriad post-primary subplots to Donald Trump's campaign, the most pressing maybe be which Donald Trump will be the most consistently seen: The one who reads scripts carefully calibrated to make him appear informed, temperate, reasonable, and presidential? Or the one who spouts off extemporaneously, praising despots and dragging US war heroes while contradicting his own positions with apparent and mercurial can’t-tell-me-nothing glee? This has been the main query of many a political-pundit talk show, but now the stakes are higher: Republicans, independents, and swing voters are tuning in, and want to know if they can rely on what their candidate is saying. They’re looking for consistency, or at least just enough of it to justify a ballot-punch. Trump will deliver a lot of speeches between now and November, and you can bet they'll be almost entirely scripted and Telepromptered. The moments of truth? Yep, those three debates. Get your popcorn ready.
CAN A THIRD PARTY MAKE A DENT OR DID "WHAT IS ALEPPO?" END THAT FANTASY?
There's a tightening going on in the polls. Hillary came out of convention season riding a big high and seemingly pulling away, but that's over now: Crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina are looking more competitive now. Part of what's responsible for the tightening is just the typical rhythm of an election season, and part of it is the rising profile of third party candidates like Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, and Gary Johnson and William Weld of the Libertarian party, who have been subtly succeeding in preying on the major party's mistrusted candidates by wooing some undecided to their cause. In fact, the Libertarians were looking like maybe they could get on the debate stage (by averaging 15% in the polls) ... until Gary Johnson's disastrous interview on Morning Joe on Thursday, during which he asked "What is Aleppo?" after having a very straightforward question about the Syrian city posed to him by the show's venerable (and legendary) mainstay Mike Barnacle. Some have likened not knowing what Aleppo is to someone not knowing what Hanoi or Saigon is during the Vietnam War era. In other words: It's a big and probably derailing deal for the Libertarians. This is hugely disappointing for those who were hoping a third party could shake up this race. If you're curious about the Libertarian platform, you can watch my interview with VP candidate William Weld, which is a solid primer. But if the voters proceed to shift away from the suddenly apparently unviable Johnson/Weld ticket in the coming weeks, will they gravitate toward Hillary or Donald? Or will Jill Stein suddenly jockey into debate-polling pole position?
KEEP AN EYE ON THESE STATES...
All states are sovereign, all states matter, but let's be honest: This election will be decided in these "swing" states: Florida. North Carolina. Ohio. Pennsylvania. Donald needs to win a bunch of them. Hillary could win the whole thing by taking just one or two. And usually you could add states like Virginia and Wisconsin to the swingers’ party list, but those are looking so pro-Hill that we'll sit them out. Though, in an incredibly unusual twist, typically unflinching Republican states like Mississippi and Texas are suddenly in play. Translation: WUUUUUUUUUUT.
The upshot of all of this? This is a crazy, crazy election. And the intensity builds, starting now.
Facts Only is a column written by REVOLT's Chief Political Correspondent Amrit Singh, who also hosts the weekly bipartisan roundtable show "Voices Of The Future", featuring young politicos discussing the election's most pressing issues through the prism of the millennial gaze. Watch it every Tuesday at 5PM ET on REVOLT TV.