US Elections 2016: Final countdown

Anything can happen in the US presidential election

Voter turnout for next month's US presidential election will be critical, given the high number of undecided voters this year.
Voter turnout for next month's US presidential election will be critical, given the high number of undecided voters this year.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Both camps have little room for error with campaign in crucial lap

In a see-sawing United States presidential race that has seen Republican candidate Donald Trump on the rise in August and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton buoyant in September, the destiny of the White House now rests solely on who will have the better October.

The seemingly interminable campaign for the presidency has entered its final month, and with early voting already starting in a handful of states, both sides have little room for error.

Mrs Clinton entered this crucial phase with all the momentum after her rival endured what many have started to call the worst week in presidential campaign history.

Beginning with an erratic performance in the first presidential debate on Sept 26, the Trump campaign has stumbled from one disaster to another. The Republican nominee embarked on an ill-advised early-morning Twitter attack on a former Miss Universe; had a tax document leaked indicating that he could have skipped paying personal income tax for nearly two decades; had the authorities order his already suspect foundation to cease fund-raising because it lacked proper certification; and was alleged to have conducted illegal dealings with Cuba.

He also rolled out an attack on former US president Bill Clinton's infidelities, which prompted scrutiny of his own indiscretions, and was found to have appeared in a Playboy soft-core porn film. To cap it off, USA Today - the American newspaper with the widest circulation - broke tradition by taking sides in an election for the very first time.

Though Mr Trump's running mate Mike Pence brought some cheer with a strong performance in Tuesday's vice-presidential debate, most agree that it was not enough to substantially change the narrative.

 

Yet - as pundits who have been burned multiple times by predictions during this election cycle keep stressing - none of those things foretells that Mrs Clinton will romp home next month.

A look at the polls gives an indication of how quickly things can change. On the day of the first presidential debate, election forecasting site FiveThirtyEight gave Mrs Clinton a 55 per cent chance of winning to Mr Trump's 45 per cent. Today, the number for the Democrat has shot up to 78 per cent.

In terms of raw poll numbers, after the two candidates were essentially tied going into the debate, the RealClearPolitics average put Mrs Clinton ahead by 3.1 percentage points. If the brash Manhattan billionaire is to make a comeback, pundits agree that he needs to at least put in a much-improved performance at tomorrow's (Monday, Singapore time) rematch on the debate stage with Mrs Clinton in St Louis.

In part, the importance of the debates comes down to the primacy of personality in this election.

"I think the 2016 election is one driven by two very large and very known personalities. And the personality dimension tends to obscure the issue concerns that we usually see in a presidential race," said University of Notre Dame professor of American studies Robert Schmuhl.

As to what the two candidates should be doing in the final sprint to election day, experts say it is at this point that the ground game really starts to make its presence felt.

"The teams on the ground are going after the people they have identified, the people who are likely to vote for Hillary if they turn out but don't have a spotless voting record. It's more finely tuned than pursuing groups," said noted Brookings Institution congressional scholar Thomas Mann. He was referring to Mrs Clinton's operation.

That ground game could be a "big deal" and worth as much as 3 percentage points, he added.

Turnout will be critical, given the high number of undecided voters this year. Queens University of Charlotte assistant professor of political science Aaron Houck said that many of those who are undecided are not independent voters, but are instead Democrats or Republicans who do not like their respective nominees. "They are not undecided on who to vote for; they are undecided about whether they are going to vote at all."

There remains the remote possibility of an unforeseen development - a damaging e-mail leak, a health scare or a terror attack - that could change the dynamics of the race.

"This unprecedented election, with an unprecedented candidate, has caused there to be an unprecedented campaign with unprecedented polls and unprecedented ideas about polls and what will happen," said Dr Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2016, with the headline 'Anything can happen'. Print Edition | Subscribe