Why Is This Election So Close?

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Photo: AP / Carolyn Kaster; Gerald Herbert)

Why Is This Election So Close?

It’s the populism, stupid.

As Donald Trump continues the self-immolation that began in the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton is rising once more in the polls. But Trump had pulled into a virtual dead heat before that debate, and could easily rise again if he ever stops torching himself.

This has once again raised a critical question: How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?

Writing after the first debate, Paul Krugman summarized the liberal punditry's litany on this question. First, he argues, many voters are racist: "A lot more Americans than we like to imagine are white nationalists at heart." Implicit racist appeals have been, as Krugman argues, a "core Republican strategy" for some time. Trump won the primary, he suggests, by trumpeting the signals Republicans normally transmit with dog whistles.

Second, and more important, the media did it. Clinton ran into a "buzz saw of adversarial reporting" that exaggerated scandals or invented them. The mainstream media's "abnormalization" of Hillary Clinton," to use Jonathan Chait's phrase, is what gave Trump a chance.

Indeed, American politics is still stained by racism and sexism; sensible Republicans understand that the being the party of white sanctuary is a losing proposition in national elections. (Though it's worth remembering that Americans twice gave Barack Hussein Obama a majority of their votes.) And complaints about the media, while not entirely without merit, are universal in campaigns. At least part of the value of this critique is simply working of the refs. Liberal howls about Matt Lauer's slanted performance in the "Commander in Chief" forum no doubt led Lester Holt, the moderator of the first presidential debate, to direct three "gotcha" questions at Trump and none at Hillary.

What's missing from these critiques: an accounting for the populist anger that has roiled both parties in this election. It's a major force, fueled by a growing understanding among voters that the economy is rigged against them by a political system that's been corrupted by big money. Americans are suffering through a second "recovery" where most people are losing ground. The middle class is getting hollowed out. Good jobs are scarce. The banks blew up the economy and got bailed out. The richest few pocket most of the rewards of economic growth. To omit this is to miss the entire context for this election.

Trump's right-wing populist stew is unique for a Republican candidate. Unlike his opponents, as he often boasted, he was not a politician. By funding his own campaign, he claimed the independence to take on a corrupted system. He combined traditional conservative support for tax cuts with a populist stance on trade, skepticism about wars without victory, support for Social Security and Medicare, support for rebuilding America, and, of course, a hardcore line on immigration ("Build the wall"; "Ban Muslims").

Clinton, meanwhile, has been unable to corral the Obama majority coalition. She ranks second only to Trump in unfavorability. Americans value her experience, but doubt her honesty and trustworthiness. Despite running as Obama's heir apparent, Clinton is polling at 48 percent, or in the 42 to 46 percent range in the four-way race.

Even partisan pundits concede that the "abnormalization" of Hillary Clinton derived in part from her not-exactly-normal activities. Not every presidential candidate earns $1.8 million in little more than a year giving speeches to Wall Street banks, or is under FBI investigation for using a private server while in public office and destroying e-mails thereafter, or serves as secretary of state while her husband runs a foundation that is raising vast sums from foreign countries and global corporations. Investigations of these issues were inevitable. And they surely have been more than balanced by the media's investigation and reporting--aided by the crack Clinton opposition-research teams--on Trump's outrageous business practices, his fraudulent university, his foundation illegalities, and his tax dodges.

Clinton's problem--both in the Democratic primaries and in the general election--is that she is inescapably part of a political establishment that has failed Americans badly. She offers continuity when 70 percent of the country thinks we are on the wrong track. She personifies big-money politics, in both how she funds her campaign and Wall Street's contributions to her personal fortune. She's had to distance herself from the policies she once supported as part of her husband's administration that proved so damaging to working and poor people, from the North American Free Trade Agreement to Wall Street deregulation to harsh criminal sentencing.

Clinton has famously has struggled to rally the young voters who were so central to Obama's elections. Millennials dismiss Trump as a buffoon, but they are turned off by the choice. They voted nearly three to one for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Before the first debate, as many as a third were saying that they might vote for a third-party candidate, but the real question is whether they turn out at all. Their cynicism is compounded by the Clinton campaign's strategic choices: Instead of championing a bold reform agenda, the campaign chose to focus on Trump personally as unfit for the job. Trump has provided infinite material for the indictment, but the result is that few voters--particularly among the young--know what Clinton is for.

However much they would like to stick it to the establishment, Americans aren't likely to elect someone as noxious as Donald Trump to the presidency. Recent press revelations--on his abuse of his foundation, his obscene tax dodges, and his company's importing its steel from China--are tarnishing his working-class appeal. His own increasingly bizarre behavior makes Clinton's case for her. But if this election ends up close, it won't be because Americans are growing more racist or the media is slandering Clinton. It will be because the populist temper--the desire to shake things up--is rising. And until Americans get a better deal, that populist temper will continue to roil our politics.

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