For normal people, the general-election cycle starts now. (By normal, I mean, well, not me.)
Labor Day is the traditional starting gun of the final two-plus months of the presidential campaign – a time when even the casual political watcher starts to pay some attention to the race that I (and my fellow political junkies) have spent more than two years of our collective lives thinking and writing about. (It seems somewhat sad when I see it in writing.)
Given that the race is just starting for lots and lots of people, it’s worth revisiting what we know about the contours of the contest.
1. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner. With 65 days left until Nov. 8, this is Clinton’s race to lose. She is better funded, better organized and – marginally – better liked. She also is the beneficiary of demographic and resultant electoral college shifts in the country (more on that below). Although Clinton is the favorite, she has not – somewhat remarkably – closed the deal with a decent-size chunk of the electorate, who still have major questions about her honesty and trustworthiness. Her ham-handed response to the controversy over her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state has exacerbated those issues. Still, if you are a betting person, she is the safer pick.
2. There is no “new” Donald Trump. Since May 3 – when Trump crushed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the Indiana primary and effectively sealed the Republican nomination – there has been talk of a Trump pivot in which he drops some of his brashness and reactionary rhetoric to convince wavering voters that he is temperamentally up to the task of being president. It has been four months and, time after time, Trump has taken one step forward and two steps back in support of the long-promised pivot. Here’s a little secret: There is no “new” or “other” Trump; there is just this Trump, take him or leave him.
3. The public doesn’t really want either of them. Clinton, at the moment, has a clear – although slightly shrinking – lead over Trump in key swing state and national polling. But what comes through loud and clear in those polls is that voters – especially Republican voters – are making up their minds not based on whom they like but based on whom they do not like. The aversion to Clinton is so massive among GOP base voters that they are beginning to rally to Trump’s cause despite having major issues with much of what he says and lingering questions about how committed he is to the conservative cause. And Democrats are fearful and astounded at the idea of Trump anywhere near the White House.
4. Republicans have a demographic problem. In the wake of the GOP’s loss in the 2012 presidential election, a group of top thinkers in the party released an autopsy of what went wrong – and how to fix it. One of the central recommendations was that Republicans needed to find a way to be for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform – otherwise, they would lose their chance at the growing Latino vote, maybe forever. Four years later, the party has nominated a candidate whose centerpiece campaign issue is building a wall on the Southern border and making Mexico pay for it. In most polls, Trump is underperforming the 27 percent that Mitt Romney got among Hispanics in 2012. That’s a disaster for the Republican Party going forward.
5. Republicans have an electoral map problem. Fueled by its inability to broaden its coalition beyond white voters, the GOP faces an uphill struggle when it comes to getting 270 electoral votes and winning the White House. Although there is a tendency to blame Trump for this, it’s not entirely (or even mostly) his fault: Only 1 in 10 people who voted for Romney in 2012 were nonwhite. What that means in practical terms is that states like Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado are moving toward Democrats at varying degrees of speed. Meanwhile, there is no such movement toward Republicans. (Minnesota and Wisconsin are getting slightly more Republican with each passing presidential election, but it is a very slow change.) Consider this: Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia have voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in every election since 1992. That accounts for 242 electoral votes. Meanwhile, 13 states have voted for the Republican nominee in each of those six elections. Add them up, and you get 102 electoral votes. It’s just math.
6. The first presidential debates will be bananas. Circle Sept. 26 on your calendar. That’s the night of the first general-election debate between Trump and Clinton. And even if you do not like politics, it’s going to be must-see TV. The debate, which will be moderated by NBC’s Lester Holt, will almost certainly draw the biggest audience of any presidential get-together in American history. And given that Trump is likely to enter it behind and in need of a major moment, it has the potential to go in a thousand directions. I get excited just thinking about it.