President George W Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove operated on the conviction that the best way to win an election is to go after the opponent’s strengths. During the 2004 election campaign, Rove went after Vietnam War hero and Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry’s war record.
He ran ads featuring the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” who claimed (falsely) that Kerry was no war hero. It worked, and “swift-boating” has since become a pejorative American neologism. Donald Trump draws his strength almost exclusively from working class whites. In the first presidential debate, Clinton had several opportunities to strain or sever the umbilical cord that attaches Trump to his base.
She failed to do so every time. Unless she succeeds in the next five weeks, Trump will continue to be within striking distance of winning the US presidency.
When Clinton proffered that the reason Trump would not release his tax return is because he probably paid no taxes, Trump responded with: “That makes me smart!” With Trump leaving himself wide open for a knockout punch, Clinton stuck to her script and said blandly: “So if he’s paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”
To drive a wedge between Trump and his working class base, Clinton should have expressed outrage and echoed Vice President Joe Biden’s indignation when he addressed students of Drexel University in Philadelphia the next day: Trump should tell that to the janitor in the hall, or to his (Biden’s) dad who worked 60 hours a week, or to the mothers and fathers who were “breaking their necks” to send their kids in the audience to school.
“It angers me!” Biden said, seething with anger. To her detriment, Clinton is incapable of showing such emotional outrage in public.
When Clinton accused Trump of rooting for the collapse of the housing market in 2008 so that he could make a profit, Trump interrupted with the boneheaded comment: “That is called business.” Instead of going after Trump for the gaffe, Clinton stayed on script and pointed out that many people had lost jobs because of it, and that the Obama administration had brought us back from the brink.
Biden’s response was different. The vice president reminded the students that a lot of their parents had lost the equity in their homes -- equity that helped them send kids to college and plan for retirement.
“That equity was insurance,” Biden hissed. “That equity’s what gave them peace of mind when they got into bed. And this is a guy who wants to be president, and said that it was good business to see the market fail! What in the hell is he talking about?”
It is the irony of ironies that someone whose lifestyle involves stepping out of his penthouse into his limousine and onto his personal plane has successfully sold himself as the champion of the working class whites
Imagine if Clinton had countered with (as suggested by a columnist): “No, Donald, that’s actually not business at all. That’s just the greedy, heartless speculation that real CEOs and real patriots despise, because it destroyed American families while you got rich and laughed. Which is why even your fellow business leaders don’t respect you.”
That would have strained, if not severed, Trump’s emotional connection with working class white voters. Unless Clinton learns to do that, Trump will continue to bounce back after every blunder.
On the road leading to our residence, there is a house that sports two Trump signs in its front yard. Two old pick-up trucks are parked in the driveway of the house. That scene encapsulates Trump supporters -- loyal, blue collar, and white. They will be with Trump come hell or high water.
No one has articulated their grievances -- immigration (legal and illegal), browning of America, unfair trade practices, exporting manufacturing jobs abroad -- before Trump. They don’t care if President Trump will actually build a wall along the US-Mexican border, ban Muslims from entering America, deport illegal immigrants, or bring back the jobs from abroad. They are rewarding Trump for raising issues important to them not through dog whistles, but boldly and unashamedly.
African-American President Barack Obama won close to 40% of the white votes in both 2008 and 2012. Astonishingly, Hillary Clinton, a white woman, is winning only 37%. She is losing white male votes by a staggering 60%.
She leads Trump only among college-educated white women. Unless Clinton manages to dent Trump’s nearly universal support among working-class whites, and makes some emotional connection with them herself by addressing issues that matter to them, the presidential race will continue to be close.
The good news for Clinton is that she did get a bounce in the polls after last Monday’s overwhelming debate victory. Nevada and Florida have moved back into her column. According to Nate Silver, she now has a 67% chance of winning.
But we have seen this movie before. Following a successful Democratic convention in late July, Clinton’s chances improved to 89% by August 14. After Trump shook up his campaign and remained on script and read from the teleprompter, while Clinton disappeared from the campaign trail, over the next six weeks, Trump slowly caught up with Clinton.
Last week was disastrous for Trump. After he was crushed by Clinton in the debate, Trump went after the 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Clinton had accused Trump of calling Machado “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping” (she is Latina) for putting on weight during her reign.
In a Twitter storm at 3am Friday morning, Trump reiterated (falsely) that Machado had gained 50 pounds (infuriating all overweight Americans), called her “disgusting,” and accused her (falsely) of appearing in a sex video.
Quickly, BuzzFeed unearthed a Playboy soft porn movie of 2000, in which Trump made a cameo appearance. This is the latest instance of Trump doing something absolutely outrageous, something which would have disqualified any other candidate.
As had happened repeatedly before, Trump’s core supporters will shrug it off, and remain steadfastly loyal to him. It is the irony of ironies that someone whose lifestyle involves stepping out of his penthouse into his limousine and onto his personal plane has successfully sold himself as the champion of the working class whites.
One wonders if Clinton will relapse into old habits and attempt to coast to victory. Trump’s handlers will make sure that he gets back to message next week. Unless Clinton matches Trump’s indefatigable efforts, rally for rally, TV appearance for TV appearance, the presidential race will remain a toss-up until the end.
Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar.