A race with no clear favourite

For Mrs Clinton, the challenge is to keep the voter turnout high, and to try and convince voters that she can be trusted. Observers also say she cannot adopt the "run out the clock" strategy she has employed in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Mr Trump faces
For Mrs Clinton (above), the challenge is to keep the voter turnout high, and to try and convince voters that she can be trusted. Observers also say she cannot adopt the "run out the clock" strategy she has employed in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Mr Trump faces the problem of trying to simultaneously balance the need to solidify his base while broadening the tent to win over moderate swing voters.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
For Mrs Clinton, the challenge is to keep the voter turnout high, and to try and convince voters that she can be trusted. Observers also say she cannot adopt the "run out the clock" strategy she has employed in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Mr Trump faces
For Mrs Clinton, the challenge is to keep the voter turnout high, and to try and convince voters that she can be trusted. Observers also say she cannot adopt the "run out the clock" strategy she has employed in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Mr Trump (above) faces the problem of trying to simultaneously balance the need to solidify his base while broadening the tent to win over moderate swing voters.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

With 2 months to go before polls, idiosyncrasies of US presidential race make any prediction tricky

In any other year, with a different set of candidates, there might be a temptation at this point to declare Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton as the clear favourite for the White House.

As the US presidential campaign enters its final sprint, with two months to polling day, she retains a small but significant edge over her Republican rival Donald Trump, even when taking into account the relatively strong two weeks the billionaire just had.

Though he has narrowed the gap, the numbers still look daunting.

Of the 10 nationwide polls conducted in the past fortnight, eight give her a lead with only one tie and one with Mr Trump holding a narrow edge. The RealClearPolitics average gives her between a three and four percentage point lead nationally.

Forecasts reflect that imbalance.

  • CHANCES OF WINNING

  • According to The New York Times

    85% CLINTON

    15% TRUMP

    According to FiveThirtyEight

    67.9% CLINTON

    32.1% TRUMP

    KEY DATES

    •Sept 23: Early voting begins in two states, Minnesota and South Dakota

    •Sept 26: First presidential debate

    •Oct 4: Vice-presidential debate

    •Oct 9: Second presidential debate

    •Oct 19: Third presidential debate

    •Nov 8: Election day

The New York Times gives Mr Trump just a 15 per cent chance of winning the White House while famed election forecasting site FiveThirtyEight puts that number at a better 32 per cent.

His campaign also appears hampered by a gulf in fund-raising, a non-existent grassroots network and an electoral college map that favours Democrats.

The president and vice-president are not elected by a popular vote but chosen by an Electoral College. There are 538 votes in the college, divided up among the states according to population size. In almost all of the states, the winner of the popular vote gets all the Electoral College votes for that state.

Then there is the matter of history. The candidate leading in the polls two weeks after the party conventions has won every presidential election since 1952.

Yet, pundits say the idiosyncrasies of this year's campaign make predictions foolhardy. In a year when nothing has adhered to conventional wisdom, nobody is confident about what will happen in the remaining two months.

"This is a unique election where you have two of the most unpopular figures in American politics running against each other. That's not something that happens very often," said Professor Glenn Altschuler, an American studies expert at Cornell University. "And when something like that happens, it's not that easy to make predictions about the outcome."

Still, there is no denying that Mr Trump has much work to do. While he leads Mrs Clinton among working-class white men, he loses in nearly every other category - including college-educated white voters, women and every minority group.

 
 
 

And though Mr Trump has ostensibly started calling on minorities to vote for him in recent weeks, nobody is quite sure whether there is enough time for him to rewrite his reputation among them or if he is even genuinely trying to reach out to these groups.

Said Prof Altschuler: "I think those appeals were to get white suburban women to believe that he is not a racist and that he is a reasonable choice. And so, it's no accident that those speeches have been made to white audiences... (and) have been geared towards traditional Republican voters."

A big part of the problem for Mr Trump in the months ahead is trying to simultaneously balance the need to solidify his base while broadening the tent.

That is difficult for anyone, but the polarising candidate has a base that has demands far removed from those of the moderate swing voters who might be up for grabs.

That dilemma was on full display in recent weeks as he wrestled with the thorny question of immigration.

For days, Mr Trump seemed to alternate between saying he was softening and stressing that he wasn't.

Then last Wednesday, after weeks of appearing to court Hispanic voters, he delivered an immigration speech so harsh in tone that several members of his own National Hispanic Advisory Council instantly resigned. This week, he changed his mind again.

If the Trump campaign ultimately deems that it cannot convince voters to his side, it may well focus on the second prong of his strategy - make sure his rival's supporters stay home with fierce, relentless attacks against Mrs Clinton. Low-turnout elections have historically favoured Republicans.

For Mrs Clinton, the challenge is a different but no easier one. To keep the turnout high, she needs to try and convince voters that she can be trusted.

Polls show nearly 60 per cent of Americans think that she is not honest and trustworthy, just two points better off than Mr Trump. Her handling of the e-mail security saga and recent legitimate questions about the Clinton Foundation have only reaffirmed the notions among many voters that the Clintons play by their own rules.

And, in part because of her own high unfavourable ratings, observers say she cannot adopt the "run out the clock" strategy she has employed in recent weeks. Mrs Clinton has, at times, seemed happy to cede the media spotlight to Mr Trump - perhaps thinking it would take attention away from her own faults and focus on his.

"That's not the right strategy for her. She's playing not to lose and hopes that Donald Trump self-destructs," said Dr Martin Cohen, an associate professor of political science at James Madison University, who has written widely on American presidential politics.

"That sounds a lot like what the Republican elites did in the primaries. Clinton would be making that same mistake if she didn't provide a more positive message."

Mrs Clinton will also have to be wary about the upcoming debates - the first on Sept 26 - which are nearly guaranteed to draw record audiences. She goes into those debates with much higher expectations than Mr Trump, in much the same way 2000 Democratic Party nominee Al Gore was considered the favourite in the encounter with then President George W. Bush.

Mr Gore is widely regarded as having lost those debates by appearing too condescending. Much was made of the moment when he sighed while listening to a reply from Mr Bush.

Of course, the election could also be impacted by one of the many possible unknowns - a terrorist attack, a health scare or even a fundamental polling error.

Dr Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre explains why she is wary about making a prediction. "Maybe in normal conditions at any other time in the race, with any other two candidates, you would say it's very likely the leading candidate is going to win this. But not this year," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2016, with the headline 'A race with no clear favourite'. Print Edition | Subscribe