From a sheer polling perspective, the last couple of weeks have followed pretty much the traditional script that you would expect in an election season. Hillary Clinton entered the back-to-back conventions with a lead of 5-8 points, then Trump got a bounce that put him briefly in the lead. Then Hillary bounced back to where she was before the conventions, or maybe a couple points ahead of that.
The dynamics here are not all that different from what they were at this point in the 2008 convention, in other words. Now, that’s not great news from Trump’s perspective, because John McCain lost handily. However, no one would have said that the race was over at this point in 2008 – it was still very much a race McCain could have won, had a few things gone differently (most importantly, had he not botched the handling of the financial crisis meltdown and been forced to run a constant rearguard action on behalf of Sarah Palin).
There’s a real sense, though, that Trump is tottering on the brink of oblivion in a way that McCain was never in danger of doing. McCain himself was/is despised by a good many Republicans, but he never risked the kind of mass defections that Trump is facing. McCain never had a supermajority of the country turning on him as a real, live possibility in the same way Trump does. McCain may have lost almost all of the true swing voters in the country but he was never going to face the possibility of a race that looked like he was genuinely behind by double-digits; in fact, he only faced one poll that showed him facing a 15-point deficit as the McClatchy/Marist poll did last week.
Moreover, Trump is facing a completely different dynamic. He is running against a candidate who has, somewhat intentionally, gone into almost a media black hole. She is firing at him with a series of effective television ads, but doing very little in terms of events where she might make news that she does not control. She is essentially forcing Trump to drive the action and betting that the polling deficit he faces will make him desperate and make further mistakes.
By all accounts, the lesson Trump’s handlers have taken from last week is that Trump needs to be chained to a teleprompter and kept relentlessly on message against Hillary. This would have been a fabulous idea the day after the Republican convention, when Trump had a lead. now that Trump is facing a significant deficit, I am less sure that this is sound strategic advice. Trump has three months left in which he basically has to do something to force Hillary into a major mistake. I somehow doubt that a heavily scripted Trump can get the job done. Without the, shall we say, creative free-flowing rhetoric that Trump has made famous, I frankly doubt that he will be able to divert Hillary’s carefully-scripted message at all in the next 90 days.
I’m not being disingenuous here. I obviously loathe Trump; I’ve not tried to play hide-the-ball with that at all. But if I were heavily invested in Trump actually winning this election, I would much more encourage him to follow the Lewandowski playbook than the Manafort playbook the rest of the way.
The race still might change if some major world event occurs that Hillary handles badly. However, putting Trump in a teleprompter box reduces the chances that Trump himself will be one of those major world events. I definitely get the concern that allowing him to go on unscripted will make things worse, but at this point I think that’s a risk you have to take, if you’re Trump. Because the reality is that Trump is really bad at being a traditional politician. Watching him try to pull it off is like watching a dog try to walk on two legs. Let him be himself and hope that somehow that translates into a win in the general like it did in the primary.