Why the US presidential race is so close

WASHINGTON • Many people around the world are probably wondering why Mrs Hillary Clinton - who is obviously more prepared and better suited for the American presidency than her opponent, Mr Donald Trump - is not waltzing to victory. Many Americans share the world's bewilderment.

National opinion polls may well continue to fluctuate until the election on Nov 8. But Mr Trump has been closing in on Mrs Clinton in recent weeks, even threatening to catch up with her in the Electoral College vote, where the Democrats' control of some of the most populous states - New York and California - give Mrs Clinton an advantage. Why is this happening?

For starters, Mr Trump, despite knowing almost nothing about governance or public policy, has managed to consolidate most Republicans behind him. One motivation is Republicans' long-held hatred of Mrs Clinton. Another is the Supreme Court; the court already has one vacant seat for the next president to fill and is likely to have more over the next four years.

 

Mr Trump has also exploited many Americans' economic anxieties, tapping the same anti-immigrant, anti-elite rage that is sweeping across European countries. But Mr Trump cannot win by appealing only to white men without a college degree. So he has been clumsily trying to suggest that he also cares about African-Americans and Latinos - not by talking to African-American and Latino voters, but by speaking in exaggerated stereotypes about them to white audiences. Not surprisingly, African-Americans and Latinos consider his comments insensitive and patronising; white women - his real target audience - have not yet been persuaded, either.

Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton is having her own difficulties reconstructing US President Barack Obama's coalition of women, African-Americans, Latinos and millennials. Many young people who passionately supported Mrs Clinton's Democratic primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, have ignored Mr Sanders' own admonitions to support Mrs Clinton, and are saying that they will vote for third-party candidates, which would help Mr Trump.


Members of the audience during a campaign rally with Mrs Clinton in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Tuesday. The recent bombings in New York and New Jersey, as well as police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, had spurred demonstrations in the swing state. The events took over the national dialogue, with Mr Trump playing on racial divisions.  PHOTO: REUTERS

Since the two major parties' national conventions in July, each candidate has alternately made gains and suffered losses. This month, just as Mr Trump was rising in the polls, he attempted to separate himself from the racist "birther" movement, which falsely claims that Mr Obama - America's first black president - was not born in the United States, and thus was ineligible for the presidency.

 

Mr Trump's remarks, terse and grudging, reminded everyone that he himself was one of the loudest "birthers" of all. His damage-control effort further backfired, because he falsely claimed that Mrs Clinton and her 2008 presidential campaign had started the birther rumour. Many news outlets finally used the word "lie" in their coverage of Mr Trump, who had gone essentially unchallenged on past fabrications.

Mr Trump cannot win by appealing only to white men without a college degree. So he has been clumsily trying to suggest that he also cares about African-Americans and Latinos - not by talking to African-American and Latino voters, but by speaking in exaggerated stereotypes about them to white audiences... Meanwhile, Mrs Clinton is having her own difficulties reconstructing US President Barack Obama's coalition of women, African-Americans, Latinos and millennials. Many young people who passionately supported Mrs Clinton's Democratic primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, have ignored Mr Sanders' own admonitions to support Mrs Clinton, and are saying that they will vote for third-party candidates, which would help Mr Trump.

Mr Trump's recent polling gains say less about his improvement as a candidate than they do about Mrs Clinton's own weaknesses and bad luck. Outside her base of passionate loyalists, Mrs Clinton has always had a voter-enthusiasm problem. She comes across to many as a packaged know-it-all, the super smart girl who put off the boys in school. And she confronts a fair amount of sexism, even among her supporters. (A former Democratic governor recently declared that she should smile more. Would he have said that about a man?)

But Mrs Clinton has also created some of her own problems. Her poor judgment in using a private e-mail server as secretary of state, thereby risking the disclosure of classified material, has become a chronic burden for her campaign. She compounded the problem when she claimed, falsely, that her predecessors had done the same thing, and that State Department security officials had cleared it. And, unlike Mr Trump, she received no deference from the press on this issue.

The e-mail saga added to voters' long-held impression that Mrs Clinton is not "honest and trustworthy", and it exposed her to attacks from adversaries on the right. The highly conservative advocacy group, Judicial Watch, has continually called attention to the issue, forcing the disclosure of e-mails that Mrs Clinton had not turned over to the State Department. (The Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI found nearly 15,000 e-mails on Mrs Clinton's server that she had not provided.) Numerous as-yet-undisclosed e-mails with the potential to damage Mrs Clinton may well be released before the election.

While FBI director James Comey decided not to recommend prosecution of Mrs Clinton for the e-mail issue, he hurt her campaign by commenting that she had been "extremely careless". In any case, the choice not to prosecute had Republicans and conservative commentators howling that she had received preferential treatment from the Democratic administration. Polls showed that 56 per cent of respondents agreed that Mrs Clinton should have been prosecuted.

A new issue for Mrs Clinton arose last month, when the Associated Press reported that numerous donors to the Clinton Foundation had received special treatment by the State Department during Mrs Clinton's tenure there, mainly by winning an appointment with her. But many of these people would have received an appointment anyway; and there is no evidence that State Department policies were changed as a result.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has begun to report on questionable - possibly illegal - expenditures by Mr Trump's own charitable foundation. Mr Trump, who has not donated to his foundation since 2008, subsequently used its funds to buy personal items (including a six-foot portrait of himself) and to pay legal settlements. Previously, it had also been disclosed that funds from the Trump Foundation had been used to contribute to the election campaigns of attorneys-general in Florida and Texas, which would also be illegal.

Finally, Mrs Clinton had the bad luck of falling ill, with cellphone video showing her nearly collapsing as she left early a ceremony in New York City commemorating the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attack. This added further fuel to right-wing media speculation that she is in poor health; Mr Trump added the sexist charge that she lacks the "stamina" to be president.

After initially claiming exhaustion, Mrs Clinton's camp revealed that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia two days earlier. Much of the press was furious that she had not shared the information sooner. But American presidential elections are brutal marathons, and it's understandable that she did not want to cancel planned events. A later poll showed that the majority of the public agreed.

Mrs Clinton's four-day convalescence came just as she was preparing to make the case for why people should vote for her, rather than why they should not vote for Mr Trump. Just as she resumed campaigning, there were bombings in New York and New Jersey, and two more police shootings of unarmed African-Americans, which spurred demonstrations in North Carolina, a swing state. The events took over the national dialogue, with Mr Trump, as usual, playing on racial divisions, and blaming Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton.

This is the background against which the candidates are holding face-to-face debates, which tend to play a large - even excessive - role in shaping US elections. It would be unwise to call this election over before it is.

PROJECT SYNDICATE


  • The writer is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate And Richard Nixon's Downfall.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2016, with the headline 'Why the US presidential race is so close'. Print Edition | Subscribe