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Column / L.Ian MacDonald

Trump Makes Clinton Look Presidential

One of the deeply un-presidential things about Donald Trump is that he has no sense of occasion.

This was apparent again Thursday at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual event hosted by the cardinal-archbishop of New York which raises millions every year for Catholic charities in the city.

It’s a glittering white-tie dinner held in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel. In presidential election years, it’s customary for the nominees of the two major parties to attend and tell self-deprecating jokes and stories.

In 2012, for example, Republican candidate Mitt Romney stole the show with one of the funniest speeches ever. He said the early media headline on the dinner was: “Obama embraces Catholics, Romney dines with rich people”. He was also incredibly gracious, saying Barack Obama had a wife and family “any man would be proud of.” For his part, Obama responded in kind.

Trump didn’t get the memo about what was expected of him at the dinner and used the occasion to savage his opponent.

“Hillary’s so corrupt she got voted off the Watergate Commission,” he declared. Unfunny, and untrue.

Then he added: “Hillary believes it’s vital to deceive people.”

Finally, Trump said, Hillary Clinton was “pretending not to hate Catholics.”

The blue-chip audience turned on him with a scattering of groans and boos, an unheard of occurrence at this event.

After the pounding he’s taken in the media in the last two weeks, it’s amazing that his poll numbers haven’t plummeted. First, there was the explosive audio conversation and his disparaging comments about women that led to the Republican leadership deserting him in droves.

Then in the second debate with Clinton, he had to stave off questions about whether he had ever behaved inappropriately with women. Ahead of the third and final debate on Wednesday, he said the election was rigged by corrupt media and the Democrats, essentially inciting his supporters to violence in the likely event of his defeat. Asked at the debate whether he would accept the result on November 8, he replied: “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” Clinton handily won the debate, on both style and substance.

The next day at an event in Ohio, Trump declared: “I will totally accept the result of this great and historic presidential election—if I win.” He then allowed that he would accept “a clear result.”

By Saturday, he threatened legal action against nearly a dozen women who have come forward since the “just grab ’em by the pussy” audio to accuse Trump of unwelcome sexual advances. “All of these liars will be sued,” he promised.

In spite of unprecedented negative coverage weights, Trump remains surprisingly competitive in national polls. At the weekend, he actually led the daily tracking poll for Investors Business Daily by a 43-41 margin over Clinton. In the Los Angeles Times daily poll Sunday, it was a dead heat—44-44. An ABC tracking poll did have Clinton breaking it open 50-38, but it may be an outlier.

It’s a different story when you look inside the numbers of the Electoral College by state. With 538 electors, the magic number is 270. And according to Real Clear Politics, Clinton is tantalizingly close to victory.

RCP’s projection of the Electoral College Sunday had Clinton at 262 votes, with Trump at 164 and 112 votes too close to call. Trump would have to win all but six of those Electoral College votes to win the presidency.

Those battleground states are Florida (29 votes), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Minnesota (10), Iowa (6), Arizona (11) and Nevada (6). Then there’s Maine, one of two states that does not have a winner-take-all delegation in the college, but rather two votes for the winner of the popular vote, and one vote for each of its two congressional districts, with one of them in play.

Based on the RCP weekend projection, Trump could afford to lose either Iowa or Nevada, but would have to run the table in all the other battleground states.

While that’s highly unlikely, this isn’t to say it couldn’t happen.

In the famous 2000 Florida re-count, George W. Bush won the sunshine state by 537 votes, an election that was decided in his favour by a 5-4 margin in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court awarding him Florida gave Bush 271 votes in the Electoral College, to 267 for Al Gore. And Gore actually won the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, 48.4 per cent versus 47.9 per cent.

It’s a measure of Clinton’s own unpopularity—particularly her trust numbers, polling in the low-to-mid 30s—that Trump is still competitive. Name recognition is usually a positive in politics. But in her case many Americans feel they know her all too well, and have known her for far too long.

But she has some inherent advantages over Trump. The Democrats have a huge ground game for Get Out the Vote (GOTV), while Trump has been ditched by the Republicans, who are into saving-the-furniture mode in the House and Senate elections, where their control of both houses of Congress is in real jeopardy because of his campaign.

Clinton also has virtually unlimited fundraising, while Trump’s campaign has been largely self-funded. For example, as the Wall Street Journal reported in its weekend edition, the Clinton campaign’s TV ad buy in September was nearly three times Trump’s--$66 million versus $23 million. That’s because, as a New York Times front page headline put it Saturday: “Outside Money Favors Hillary Clinton at a 2-to-1 Rate Over Donald Trump”, her political action committees having raised over $200 million.

Both her GOTV and media buy should give her an advantage in the home stretch. But rounding the final turn, it’s quite astonishing that he’s still in the race.

L. Ian MacDonald, Editor of Policy, is the author of five books and served in Washington from 1992-94 as head of public affairs at the Canadian Embassy. lianmacdonald@policymagazine.ca