A truly fascinating dynamic is taking hold this general election cycle. As insane as Donald Trump has been at every step of the way, and as many people as he’s offended and convinced that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, every time he goes a week without a major screwup, he catches up to Hillary Clinton. There’s no denying it: in the last week, Trump has noticeably narrowed the gap against Clinton in both national polling and in key state polling. He’s still behind, but if the race continues on its current trajectory, Trump may enter the debate season virtually tied with Clinton, a position that was unthinkable two weeks ago.
Objectively, Trump has not had a great week. He spent most of the week putting out fires related to what at the very least must be called some rhetorical bungles on his immigration position; but more likely constituted a trial balloon for an outright flip-flop on immigration. Trump ultimately reverted to his early-primary position; a position which was itself a flip flop from Trump’s rhetoric in 2013 on the question of immigration (which was identical to Marco Rubio’s, verbatim). The Ann Coulters and Mickey Kauses of the world lauded Trump’s reversion to an extremely unpopular position as a stroke of political genius. Whatever. I suppose there’s a circumstance where sticking by a position that is opposed by 80% of the American voting public is a good call, but this was probably not it.
Then, his much-ballyhooed trip to Mexico ended with a Trump who refused to mention or embrace any of the policies he would tout a few short hours later while actually on Mexican soil and face to face with Mexico’s President. Whatever you think about the political wisdom of this move, it does not bode well for Trump’s willingness (if necessary) to, say, oppose Putin to his face (if we grant that Trump isn’t actively in Putin’s pocket). His opponent had a seriously embarrassing week with yet more email revelations, but Trump seemed determined to once again steal every news cycle from her, stepping on the steady worsening of the email scandal with his surprise trip to Mexico, which he further sensationalized by disinviting his traveling press.
On the other hand, while Trump has dealt with controversies, the controversies he has dealt with have been normal-level political controversies. A candidate triangulating for the general election and risking the anger of his base is a story we are used to seeing. By Trumpian standards, it’s positively boring. A photo op with a timid and unpopular foreign leader that turned out to be nothing of substance? A bit odd, but nothing seriously unusual.
What Trump did succeed in doing was keeping himself in the news, but this week he seems to have found the sweet spot of being constantly newsworthy, but not constantly driving away voters. Hillary is allowed to exist in the background, but mainly, people are thinking and talking about Trump.
What this dynamic is exposing is that America’s default mood, in the absence of any specific news item that changes the equation, is hating Hillary Clinton. Sometimes, events will happen that change this dynamic – a positively received speech by Clinton at the DNC, or one of the many negatively received comments of Trump. But in a remarkably short time, people are willing to forget these events and revert to form; form being that at least half the country would crawl over broken glass to vote against her.
Granted, this is not really a proven hypothesis, because this is really only the second time since May that Trump has gone as much as an entire week without seriously injuring himself – so it’s a small sample size. But it sure looks like the second Trump stops making America hate him every single day America immediately starts hating Hillary more again. The question will be whether Trump can keep himself disciplined for the last week of the campaign or so.