Over the past few weeks, observers of the 2016 presidential campaign have noticed a fairly strong trend begin to develop: namely, that the campaign of GOP nominee Donald Trump, the first human to score an OMFG on the Myers-Briggs test, seems to be in flames. On the other hand, the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton seems to ― well ... it seems to exist.
But at the moment, simply existing seems to be good enough. The question is, what should Clinton do over the next few weeks of the campaign? Here’s a thought: maybe she should not do anything!
It’s a bit of a crazy idea, one that I wouldn’t normally recommend, but this is a good time to pursue this plan. What makes it a good time? Well, it’s a good time because the Trump campaign rather insistently keeps doing stuff. And as it turns out, “doing anything at all” is emerging as Trump’s Achilles’ heel.
Donald Trump’s convention was unique in American political history, as it was the first time in three decades that voters sized up a presidential nominee’s four-day presentation and responded, “Hard pass, thanks.” According to a Gallup survey, 51 percent of viewers came away feeling like they’d be less likely to vote for Trump, as opposed to 36 percent who said the opposite, leading to a net negative 15 percent.
That set the stage for the polling to come, in which Clinton’s convention bounce has proven to be larger and more durable. According to HuffPost Pollster’s polling average, at this moment Clinton has a 7.6 percent lead nationally. This time four years ago, Obama merely led by 1.1 percent ― and he never led by more than 4 points at any time after the 2012 conventions.
Post-convention polling averages aside, Clinton has decent leads in many of the important battleground states, and has turned reliable Republican redoubts ― like Arizona and Georgia ― into potential swing states. In the first poll out of South Carolina, conducted by Public Policy Polling, Trump only leads by 2 points. Now, this will probably prove to be an outlier. On the other hand: Will it?
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign strategy seems to have been plucked from the litter box of a particularly Dadaist tabby. The Clinton campaign and its affiliated groups have mercilessly outspent Donald Trump on the airwaves, to the tune of $89 million to $8 million. When Trump gets out to campaign in person, he spends an inordinate amount of time in states like Connecticut, which he isn’t going to win. And lately, wherever he has appeared, he has reliably said crazy, off-putting things that make his level of sanity an open question.
Politico’s Shane Goldmacher actually went and documented all the things that Trump has done over his first 100 days as his party’s presumptive nominee. What has he done during that time? Basically, he’s sucked at just about everything. He’s reopened old scores, dragged out costly stories unnecessarily, and basically neglected every aspect of his campaign. Per Goldmacher:
But as much news as Trump made, much of Trump’s 100 days is a tale of time squandered: the three weeks before holding his first fundraiser, the 39 days before a swing-state tour, the 50 days before his first email solicitation for money. “Usually campaigns don’t even start until September,” said Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman, on Day 94. Trump has still not aired a general election ad.
Indeed, perhaps the most difficult missteps to measure are Trump’s neglected opportunities. He essentially ignored an inspector general’s report critical of Clinton (Day 23), stomped on the Labor Department’s worst jobs report in six years (Day 32) and posted that controversial Jewish star the same day Clinton sat down to be interviewed by the FBI (Day 61).
In short, Hillary Clinton’s most effective campaign surrogate is her opponent. At what point should she step in and take over? Here’s a hint: not now!
If you’re on Clinton’s campaign team, you’re probably really hungering to get out there and start running plays. After all, this is what you’ve spent the past year and a half preparing for ― executing strategy and making moves. You probably want to show off your best stuff.
But what do you do when you’re up by 35 points in the second half of the game? You keep it simple, and you rest your starters. Last year, if the Denver Broncos ever needed to give Peyton Manning a spell, they let Brock Osweiler run things and it all worked out fine.
Tim Kaine is probably a pretty good Osweiler. Kaine probably even knows what osweiling is. Bet he did a lot of osweiling, back in the day. Let him take some snaps.
Right now, Trump’s net favorability rating is negative 31 percent, which is insane. But here’s what’s more important: Clinton’s favorables, while better than Trump’s, aren’t that great either. So while the time might feel right to start courting the attention of cable news channels ― especially now that they seem inclined to cover Clinton’s rallies and appearances in equal measure to Trump’s ― why take the chance? Who knows what might happen? If Clinton appears too often on the teeevee, people might start remembering what they don’t like about her. The more space she cedes to Trump’s elaborate and unending train wreck, the better.
Besides, left to their own devices, the Clinton team has been making some odd choices of late. For example, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time to get Berkshire Hathaway kazillionaire Warren Buffet out on the stump with Clinton in Nebraska right after the convention. On some level, it probably feels pretty cool to watch rich guys like Buffet, Michael Bloomberg and Mark Cuban take turns dragging Trump, their allegedly wealthy peer. But these billionaires, man, ordinary people do not relate to them. Maybe it would be worth it to dial back the constant reminder that these dudes are doing really great in this economy.
Similarly, maybe the Clinton campaign should be a little more circumspect and muted every time some ancient war criminal steps up to say “I’m with her.” If the Clinton campaign was worried about how the press might react to the knowledge that the Pulse nightclub shooter’s father was a big supporter, they should be doubly worried about the possibility the press might find out about all the horrific shit that Clinton-endorser John Negroponte did in the 1980s.
Actually, belay that, I momentarily forgot that the political press thinks Negroponte is a really swell and serious guy.
Nevertheless, these are not good looks. Remember: The game is shaping up to be a blowout. Don’t get fancy!
Here’s a better move the Clinton campaign made: going out to Utah for a sit-down with the editorial board of the Deseret News. Yes, this was largely driven by the way this unique race has somehow made Utah look like a battleground state. Typically it’s a waste of time for a Democratic nominee to pitch themselves to America’s largest Mormon population, who typically vote very conservatively. But in August 2016, Clinton’s playing with house money, so why not take a shot?
But what I find to be the most appealing part of this play is just getting out in the field and spending time with local newspaper reporters and editors. In the media landscape, these are the people who are most likely to demonstrate substance and sobriety. They’ll be thoughtful, probing and challenging in their own right, but they’ll also be much less likely to find excitement in all the superficial stuff that the cable nets gorge themselves on ― hype and gaffes and lapsus linguae. If Clinton’s campaign is smart, and tailors a local-first media approach to the concerns of these papers’ constituency, the coverage will be sparkling and substantive ― and the campaign will learn more about how people outside of the Acela corridor are living.
How much better will Clinton have to be than Trump? Not much! Trump seems to only intermittently understand where he is on any given day.
Obviously, if the Clinton campaign goes dark, there are still plenty of risks. Right now, Clinton is dogged by the fact that she hasn’t fed the media beast at all by offering herself up for news conferences ― should she continue down that path, she won’t shake the reputation for being press-averse. And hey, you never know, any day now, Donald Trump might suddenly reveal himself to be a competent campaigner ― hitting the right battlegrounds, opening the war chest, maybe even actively opting to hit Clinton where she’s vulnerable, instead of opening up newer and bloodier self-inflicted wounds.
It could happen! After all, everything else has happened. For the moment, however, Trump seems to believe in the strange theory of his campaign ― that there are more silent and disaffected voters out there in the world to be turned out than there are voters to be turned off. If that’s true, he wins.
Of course, if he’s right, then there’s not a lot that the Clinton campaign can do about it in any event. Either way, at this moment in time, the old adage applies: Never interrupt your enemy when he is an ongoing garbage-star supernova of unprecedented incompetence.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.