After the conventions, the presidential race heads into the dog days


As the nation’s political class, reporters, and analysts recover from the two-week convention slog — we know, the nation feels so sorry for us — the presidential race enters something of a lull.

Labor Day, the traditional kick-off to the general election sprint, is still a month away, and August is a month dominated by vacations and, every presidential year, the Olympics, which will draw many eyeballs away from politics during the dog days.

In the meantime, we’ll have to wait and see what the polls say in a couple of weeks, after the effects of the conventions become clearer.

Based on the way we’re calculating convention bumps, Trump’s median bounce has remained three points, going from a median poll figure of 41% to 44% as of Friday. That’s below the roughly five-point median bounce that presidential candidates have typically gotten over the past few decades. However, that obscures the progress Trump has made in national polls over the past several weeks. As of three weeks ago, Trump was down about five points in the RealClearPolitics average, but it’s now tied. The HuffPost Pollster average also had him down about five points three weeks ago, and now he’s down two. We can quibble over the details, but it seems clear Trump gained at least a little bit of support from his convention.

But now Clinton should get her own bounce.

The Democratic National Convention featured a more impressive list of speakers than the Republican confab: effectively every major Democrat was there and they all spoke glowingly of Clinton, while several top GOP leaders, like Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kasich, and the Bush family, were absent from Cleveland, and Ted Cruz couldn’t even bring himself to endorse Trump in his speech. Clinton is clearly going to have more high-level surrogates to campaign on her behalf across the country. Whether that truly matters is a fair question.

Two of the most effective speakers were ones who likely were targeting a niche audience. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ex-Republican (though hardly a conservative one), assailed Trump and made the case for why people who may not typically vote Democratic should back Clinton this time. We often talk to people who say they vote for “the candidate, not the party label,” a line that Bloomberg used. The high level of party unity in modern American politics calls into question the sincerity of such statements, but if Bloomberg persuaded some small sliver of Country Club Republicans turned off by Trump’s rough edges to back Clinton, his speech will have been a success for Democrats.

On the final night, retired Gen. John Allen made the case that Clinton would be a stronger commander in chief. During his speech, and amidst chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” drowning out a smattering of anti-war Sanders backers, we certainly weren’t the only ones who thought we had been transported a dozen years back in time to a George W. Bush rally. But Allen’s speech was another targeted at Republicans, particularly the party’s foreign policy elites, who have grave misgivings about Trump, a critic of Bush’s interventionism.

For what it’s worth, we thought that it might have been wise for Clinton, in her own speech, to acknowledge voters’ lack of trust in her, and perhaps even make at least an oblique reference to her email scandal. In advance of the conventions, the race began to tighten, probably in part because of FBI Director James Comey’s press conference that called Clinton’s email practices into question even while announcing that the FBI did not suggest indicting her. We floated this idea on Twitter, and some Clinton supporters argued that doing so would have distracted from the message of Clinton’s speech, which may have been the case. In any event, Clinton has yet to shake the email questions and broader concerns about her personal integrity.

The strongest part of Clinton’s speech were her attacks on Trump’s lack of qualification to be president. Whatever one may think of Clinton, she has much more experience than Trump and has much greater command of policy specifics. Trump’s hardcore supporters don’t mind his lack of experience and policy savvy — in fact, they celebrate it. But polls indicate that a majority of the country is not yet convinced that Trump is up to the task of being president, and Clinton’s pokes preview what will be a major line of attack throughout the fall. Much of the rest of Clinton’s speech contained fairly standard Democratic rhetoric designed to further unify the party.

A potential problem for the Democrats, though, is that the party might be trying to build too wide of a tent. Jeet Heer, a writer at the liberal New Republic, argues that “Strange as it may sound, Clinton has assembled a coalition that is too big, which makes it unwieldy and riven with internal contradictions.”

There were at least a few people in the convention hall — scattered amongst the neon green-shirt clad Bernie Sanders diehards — who probably won’t be voting for Clinton in the fall. And more broadly, Clinton still has work to do to make sure young voter turnout does not drop. These voters were very supportive of Sanders in the primary, they are the most Democratic age group in the country, and they are the least reliable group of voters. That’s not a great combination for Clinton, and we’re not sure this convention did a great job cultivating them despite obvious ploys such as having Katy Perry performing in primetime on Thursday night. As effective as Allen and Bloomberg may have been in offering a persuasive message to some Republicans, we can’t imagine they did anything for the Sanders crowd. Here’s where negative partisanship — voting against Donald Trump as opposed to for Hillary Clinton — may be the best weapon the Democrats have.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that their “Coalition of the Ascendant” — nonwhites, college-educated white women, and young voters — shows up in insufficient or uneven strength. For instance, we can imagine an election in which Clinton narrowly wins the popular vote by outperforming recent Democratic performances in diversifying states like Arizona and Georgia, but failing to win those states, and in the process ceding whiter, heartland states like Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to Trump. In other words, the intensity of Trump’s downscale white coalition might outshine the broader but less cohesive collection of Clinton voters. To be clear, we continue to see Clinton as a favorite, and in a world in which Clinton is improving in places like Arizona and Georgia she might also be winning Florida and North Carolina, both of which are almost certainly must-wins for Trump. But there are a lot of scenarios we can envision at this point, and some of them might produce a Trump victory.

The next big event on the calendar is the first debate, scheduled for Sept. 26. There’s been at least one presidential debate in every election since 1976, although there were no debates from 1964-1972 following the groundbreaking, initial televised presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Presumably we’ll have them again, but it’s not impossible to imagine one of the candidates, more likely Trump, opting against participating. And there’s also a small chance that the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld gets to 15% in an average of national polls, which would permit both to debate.

But for now, we wait. Whatever one might say about the deficiencies of Trump’s RNC, there’s little question that he got a bounce out of it, albeit not one that was reflected across all polls. The convention brought him to roughly a tie in polling averages. Now Clinton has the chance to get her own bounce, and there’s every reason to expect she will get one, although it’s hard to speculate on the size. Let’s say it’s around four or five points, which, again, would be in line with recent previous nominees of both parties. That would put her up about three or four points nationally, which would restore the race to its standing from a few weeks ago, before Comey’s press conference and the RNC. A lead like that, if it held steady until Election Day, would suggest a national outcome very similar to Barack Obama’s 2012 victory, which is roughly what our current Electoral College ratings show.

However, when conventions are held this early, do they mean as much? The last time both parties held conventions this early — before the end of July — was in 1960. That race saw Kennedy and Nixon trade leads in Gallup’s polls a couple of times over the next three months before Kennedy narrowly won in November.

Clearly, any bounce is more difficult to sustain when over 100 days remain. There is simply too much time left for new issues and controversies to intervene. Nor will the media permit the same themes to dominate day after day; their audience might get bored.

So the most that candidates can do is build off the conventions. Here the two candidates will differ. Trump is a hunter and forager who kills what he sees and capitalizes on serendipitous events. Clinton is a planter who decides ahead what crops she will grow, and then cultivates them to harvest. Take opposition research. Trump welcomes intelligence from his old press and business allies but it’s doubtful he has binders full of information on Hillary Clinton’s life over the decades.

Clinton is the opposite. What Democrats have already assembled on Trump’s past would likely fill a library shelf, or two or three.

The fundamentals matter more, of course: Obama’s job ratings, the state of the economy, and terrorism are three examples. But if this contest turns out to be a squeaker, then the quality of scorched-earth attacks may matter. What has each side squirreled away for the fall? And what further surprises lurk in the shadows? Just because August feels like it could be a lull does not mean it will be.