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Is Donald Trump Blowing It?

In this week’s politics chat, we talk about what’s happened in the 2016 campaign since the end of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday. It’s been a wild few days. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): All right, everyone, we’re back in New York after two weeks covering the conventions and here’s our question for today: Is Donald Trump blowing it? He got a middling bounce out of the Republican National Convention, and since then has seemed intent on creating problems for himself. Most notably, he’s spent days criticizing the Muslim parents of an American soldier, who was killed in Iraq, after they spoke at the Democratic convention.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Can we lay the numbers out here? He got a 3-4 percentage point bounce, which is fairly normal for recent conventions, right? And we think Clinton might get a bigger bounce?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Clinton has gotten a bigger bounce. That’s safe to conclude at this point.

And I sort of don’t buy the argument that a 3-4 point bounce was impressive for Trump, especially given what we’ve seen from Clinton. There was a lot of low-hanging fruit this year, in terms of undecided and third-party voters. Doesn’t take that much to sweep them into the GOP camp. But he really didn’t reach out at all beyond his base, which is maybe 40 percent of the population. He went from 37 to 40 percent. Woo-hoo.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I mean, “blowing it” implies he really was ahead to begin with.

micah: Even if he wasn’t winning, Harry, is he blowing any chance he had?

harry: We know that Clinton’s lead in FiveThirtyEight’s now-cast is nearly as high as it’s ever been. (Note: that’s what the now-cast is good for. It tells you where things are right now.) Ergo, Clinton had a successful convention, which is what voters said, according to Gallup.

micah: But I’m more interested in what’s happened post-convention. It feels like Trump’s incendiary comments about the Khan family have stuck in a way that other Trump controversies didn’t. And today, President Obama went further then he has before (maybe further than any recent incumbent president) in calling Trump unfit for the presidency, and urging Republican leaders to abandon him.

harry: The Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel controversy stuck, too, but Khan isn’t a federal judge — he can keep the story alive for days and weeks. I’d also argue that there is an increased urgency from folks like Obama because the polls showed Trump closing.

micah: I guess this is my point: If Trump’s best hope is to make this election as normal as possible — because the fundamentals point to a close race and Clinton is so unpopular — he has really moved in the opposite direction in the past week.

natesilver: Be careful, though. Clinton’s gotten a pretty big lead because of the conventions. I’ve already seen a couple of people (mis)attribute it to the Khan stuff. We don’t really know anything about that yet, polls-wise. We’ll have to see if Clinton’s lead continues to grow after the convention.

harry: I get some people’s inclination to think Trump is a sort of master campaigner, given the primary, Micah, but in the general election the opposite seems to be true.

natesilver: Right, and that’s why the conventions were important. Clinton ran a conventional convention. Trump ran an unconventional convention. The conventional convention seemed to win out.

clare.malone: I think now that the conventions are past, the big event that had so much build-up, I wonder if Trump isn’t feeling a bit adrift? I.e., maybe the reason he’s responding so much to the controversies of the moment is because he was slightly disappointed by his polling bounce from the big event he had been looking forward to, and now he heads into the abyss of the true general election.

micah: He had told us the GOP convention would be an amazing show… and then afterward was saying, “Oh, I just showed up to speak.” Which does suggest he was disappointed with how it went.

natesilver: What if he’s in an abyss, mentally? He’s been keeping up this act for more than a year now. It’s exhausting (and nobody would accuse Trump of being lazy). What he tried before in the primaries isn’t working, and maybe he sort of knows it deep down, but he doesn’t quite have the willpower to change.

clare.malone: As a side note, I am so excited for the Olympics to be added into the current soup of culture, as, I would imagine, are the American people. Micah keeps on saying this in meetings, but August is a relative political lull in some ways. Trump might be trying to figure out how to deal with this doldrums.

harry: Trump reads the polls. He has to know most of them show him down. (Side note: I don’t care for the Olympics.)

micah: I hate the Olympics.

clare.malone: Wait. Really?

harry: Really.

clare.malone: I have never heard anyone say that. I’m not being hyperbolic here.

You don’t even like one event?

harry: I watch baseball and football. Those are not Olympic events.

natesilver: The Olympics is sports, packaged for non-sports fans, which is slightly offensive if you’re a sports fan.

harry: THANK YOU.

clare.malone: UGH. You guys are such elitists.

natesilver: I just want to resist the interpretation that any of this is coming from a rational part of Trump’s brain, whether as part of some brilliant 12-dimensional chess strategy, or even a strategy at all really. Maybe that’s a reasonable prior for a lot of politicians, but I’m not sure about Trump.

clare.malone: I mean, it may be coming from his emotional side, but so do most campaign decisions, it would seem.

micah: Let me back up for a second: Why do you all think his comments about Khan have stuck in a way maybe only the Curiel comments did?

natesilver: I don’t think that, necessarily. I think we’ll need to see proof of that in the polls, and frankly we may never get it because all of this is going to be mashed into the convention bounce. But it does seem that when Trump is cruel to private citizens, that tends to get him in trouble. As opposed to being mean to politicians.

micah: Yeah, I’m just talking news cycle and the culture of the campaign, not polls.

harry: As I wrote on our last live blog of the Democratic convention, I thought Khan’s speech was powerful, in part, because he was talking about his son, and not about anti-Muslim bigotry in the abstract. I also think that’s why Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel were so widely rebuked. Trump has made many racially and religiously insensitive comments, but these were tied to someone specific — people viewed as a patriotic American.

micah: Yeah, that seems like the key differences, he’s attacking someone specific and they’re not a politician.

clare.malone: Right, and also, Republicans and Americans generally don’t take kindly to people speaking ill of the families of dead soldiers. Not a great look ever. I’ll point out here that George W. Bush faced a pretty consistent critic of the war in Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead U.S. soldier. Bush handled his comments when it came to that with a whole lot more tact than Trump has.

micah: Right … so Nate, how would you advise people to try to disentangle the effects in the polls of the Khan controversy (if there are any) from the convention bounces?

natesilver: We need to wait another week or so. Usually, the convention bounce peaks just a couple of days after the convention. But if a candidate really steps in it — as Romney did with 47 percent at a similar time last year — that bounce may keep growing.

Still, the timing in the news cycle is also a reason to be suspicious that it matters all that much, in the end, in terms of the polls. Meaning, Clinton had a good convention. She moved way up in the polls. News coverage of Trump was almost certainly going to be negative because of that, at least for a week or two. Trump’s problems are being attributed to the Khan stuff, when if there wasn’t that, there would be something else it was attached to.

micah: Not to harp, but I think you’re missing something. The Khan comments were so widely condemned, including by Republicans, that — whether they register in the polls or not — they seem like a mile-marker in the campaign to me.

natesilver: Look, I think there’s a world in which this is the start of a downward spiral, and Clinton wins the election by 13 points or something. That sort of outcome is on the table, just as Trump winning is still on the table.

But I feel like we’ve had a really big Politics 101 moment that’s sort of gotten lost. Which is that maybe the campaigns matter after all, and people do certain sorts of things at the convention because it works, and Trump isn’t doing that, and he’s in a big hole.

clare.malone: I tend to agree with Micah that this might be turning into a campaign milestone, if only because Trump may be feeding the beast. Someone on Twitter this week suggested that this Breitbart article looks a bit like an oppo research dump on the Khans by the Trump campaign: “Until now, it looked like the Khans were just Gold Star parents who the big bad Donald Trump attacked. It turns out, however, in addition to being Gold Star parents, the Khans are financially and legally tied deeply to the industry of Muslim migration–and to the government of Saudi Arabia and to the Clintons themselves.”

micah: Just to add to the craziness: Trump is unskewing the polls now.

harry: Not only is Trump unskewing the polls, he’s suggested that he might try to unskew the election. That is, he has said it may be rigged, which may be the most dangerous thing he has said to date.

natesilver: Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that Republican leaders ought to be denouncing. Even for selfish reasons, they should be denouncing it. Talk about a way to further undermine trust in the establishment.

micah: So that’s the thing. It feels to me like we may be reaching an inflection point.

harry: But it has felt like we reached those before, but they never came. Rather than try to guess that we’re at an inflection point, I feel quite comfortable in allowing the next few weeks to take place and see where we are at.

micah: That’s so prudent of you, Harry.

natesilver: In FiveThirtyEight model terms, this is sort of the debate between polls-only and polls-plus. Once the models get a few more days to settle in, polls-only will probably show Clinton in a better position than polls-plus, since polls-plus will revert to the mean more. It will assume the race is more likely to tighten than for Clinton’s lead to continue to widen, in other words. Polls-only won’t make any assumptions about that, conversely.

micah: And the now-cast will light its hair on fire.

natesilver: To me, the most important development of the past few days isn’t Khan, but Democrats doubling down on the notion that Trump is unfit for office. As you mentioned, Micah, President Obama just said that, in exactly those terms, earlier this afternoon. Very unusual for a sitting president to do that.

micah: That was really striking. Is there precedent for a sitting president to so explicitly disqualify the opposing party’s nominee?

natesilver: Maybe they think they’ve found Trump’s Achilles heel. Because it’s very hard to respond to comments like that except by appearing composed and presidential. And that’s very hard for Trump to do, to say the least.

harry: That’s why I’d argue that perhaps the most interesting speech of the convention was Michael Bloomberg’s. He basically said Trump was unfit for office — it was essentially the speech’s only argument against Trump. It mostly wasn’t about policy.

clare.malone: Yeah. I keep on thinking about the ways I responded to childhood taunts by siblings as a way to analyze this election. Hard not to get your Irish up when you’re backed into a corner vis-à-vis your ethical competency, as is happening to Trump right now — and yeah, Bloomberg saying he got all his money from his daddy. That’s got to smart.

natesilver: Right, and in general, the Democrats moved rhetorically to the center at their convention, even though the platform was actually pretty far left. So to some extent, they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too.

clare.malone: Mmm, cake. (This chat is inconveniently scheduled over the lunch hour.)

harry: Yeah, I’m hungry.

natesilver: And the editor of this chat ordered lunch for himself, without asking if any other participants wanted food. Just FYI.

micah: Another FYI: the food is delicious.

clare.malone: Yeah, what gives, Micah? Shrimp fried rice?

harry: Anyway, I’d argue that this election isn’t being fought on the liberal-conservative dimension as much as a second dimension. I don’t know exactly how to define it, but it’s on this second dimension that Trump is getting raked over the coals.

clare.malone: The dimension is: concern for democracy.

natesilver: Values vs. nihilism?

micah: Alright let me press the “something really is changing” case a little more, if only to stress-test it. Qualitatively, the Khan comments and the response to them seemed to me to have more weight than other controversies (and I don’t buy the argument that because something didn’t hurt him in the primary, or even earlier in the general, that this won’t).

Moreover, as FiveThirtyEight contributor David Wasserman pointed out, we’re moving out of the period when down-ballot Republicans are competing in primaries and most worried about the base. So I think you’ll likely to see more Republicans coming out explicitly for Clinton, rather than just against Trump, and I think it could all build on itself.

natesilver: I guess the point I’m struggling to make is that Clinton’s large-ish convention bounce is a pretty big deal, and people are sort of treating it as another garden-variety event and moving on to the next thing.

micah: Well, we have certainly covered it.

harry: Covered? We doused ourselves in it.

natesilver: I know. But I’m used to people freaking out over 1- or 2-point shifts in the polls. This year, we’ve seen some 5- or 7-point shifts, and people’s reactions are about the same.

micah: But Clinton’s bounce to me is part of it — I just think we may look back and say, “The normal political rules didn’t seem to apply during the GOP primary, but they applied during the general.”

clare.malone: I don’t think she got the bounces because of the Khans. OBAMA. Obama coming out there and basically taking shots at Trump I think added a lot.

harry: I think every little thing adds up. And we cannot disentangle what exactly is going on.

micah: Obama got a bounce too.

clare.malone: Right. So basically we should all check back in two weeks. And watch some OLYMPICS.

micah: Except, dear reader, make sure you check this site every day between now and then.

natesilver: Every HOUR.

clare.malone: NOW-CAST.

harry: DO IT!

clare.malone: But don’t tweet at me about it. That really stressed me out this weekend. I don’t know how the model is built, people. That’s all up in Nate’s mind-palace.

harry: Which looks like Trump’s apartment, fyi.

natesilver: The now-cast is a powerful drug.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.


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