The two party conventions are over. The first general election debate is in 56 days. The general election is 99 days away. Now, then, seems like a good time to look at what we know about the clash between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Here are five things I think I know.
1. There is no Trump 2.0.
I’ve been saying this for a while now. There is no pivot. There is no new and improved version. There is just Donald Trump – take him or leave him. Ask yourself this: What successful 70-year-old man – in the immediate aftermath of one of the greatest victories of his life – decides to do things totally differently? The answer is no 70-year-old man, particularly one with the level of supreme confidence displayed by Trump.
“There is no other Donald Trump,” Clinton said in her acceptance speech last week in Philadelphia. “This is it.” That’s right. For Republicans desperately hoping that Trump stops attacking members of his own party or takes a break from Twitter, it’s just not going to happen. Trump is going to be Trump; Republicans have to decide whether that’s who they want to vote for.
2. Hillary Clinton is going to play it safe
Clinton’s defining trait as a politician is her cautiousness. She doesn’t leap before she looks. Ever. Her selection of Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate – and reporting that suggests Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack finished second in the veepstakes – makes clear that Clinton isn’t going to take any major risks in the coming 100 or so days of the campaign.
What that caution reflects is a belief – never stated publicly – among Clinton and her senior aides that if she does the basic blocking and tackling in swing states, makes no major mistakes and just keeps letting Trump talk, she wins. Based on the electoral map and Trump’s demographic problems with Hispanic voters, that looks like a smart strategy today.
3. Trump has a very narrow electoral path
If Trump loses this fall, many Republicans will heap blame on him and the campaign he is running. Some of that blame will be fair. Much of it won’t be, for this reason: No Republican presidential nominee starts off with a 50-50 shot of beating their Democratic opponent because of the GOP’s huge disadvantages in the electoral map.
Consider this: 18 states plus the District of Columbia have voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in each of the six elections between 1992 and 2012. They total 242 electoral votes. There are 13 states that have voted for the Republican nominee in every presidential election since 1992. They total 102 electoral votes. So, if Clinton wins the 18 states in the “Blue Wall” and wins Florida (and its 29 electoral votes), the election is over. She is president.
4. Clinton and Trump may be the only people each other can beat
We are dealing with two very unpopular nominees – the two least popular major-party picks in modern presidential politics. These are two deeply flawed candidates with problems that almost certainly can’t be fixed.
For Trump, the issue is that people simply struggle to see him as someone who could actually be president. His short temper, tendency to overstate and seeming unwillingness to back away from his more divisive rhetoric make Trump less than ideal as a major-party nominee.
Meanwhile, Clinton labors under deep doubt about her honesty and trustworthiness – concerns that were only exacerbated by her mishandling of the email controversy regarding her electronic correspondence at the State Department. Clinton has rhetorically bowed to the idea that she has work to do to convince people – “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me,” she said in her acceptance speech at the convention – but it’s unclear whether anything she could say or do would change minds.
The simple fact is that Trump is the only Republican Clinton can beat and Clinton is the only Democrat Trump can beat.
5. The next three months are going to be incredibly nasty
When you have two candidates who are as disliked as these two, the path to victory isn’t to make yourself more likable – it’s to make the other person even less well liked. Money spent on ads trying to make either Clinton or Trump more appealing to the electorate is almost certainly a waste.
What that means is that you are going to hear a lot more about “Crooked Hillary” from Trump and a lot more about Trump’s controversial comments about women, Hispanics and, well, almost everyone else from Clinton.
Brace yourself: It’s going to be the nastiest 99 days you have ever seen in a political campaign.