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Why is the US Presidential Race So Close?

WASHINGTON, DC – Many people around the world are probably wondering why Hillary Clinton – who is obviously more prepared and better suited for the American presidency than her opponent, Donald Trump – isn’t waltzing to victory. Many Americans share the world’s bewilderment.

National opinion polls may well continue to fluctuate until the election on November 8. But Trump has been closing in on Clinton in recent weeks, even threatening to catch up with her in the Electoral College vote, where the Democrats’ control of some of the most populous states (New York and California) give Clinton an advantage. Why is this happening?
For starters, Trump, despite knowing almost nothing about governance or public policy, has managed to consolidate most Republicans behind him. One motivation is Republicans’ long-held hatred of Clinton. Another is the Supreme Court; the court already has one vacant seat for the next president to fill and is likely to have more over the next four years.

Trump has also exploited many Americans’ economic anxieties, tapping the same anti-immigrant, anti-elite rage that is sweeping across European countries. But Trump cannot win by appealing only to white men without a college degree. So he has been clumsily trying to suggest that he also cares about African Americans and Latinos – not by talking to African-American and Latino voters, but by speaking in exaggerated stereotypes about them to white audiences. Not surprisingly, African-Americans and Latinos consider his comments insensitive and patronizing; white women – his real target audience – haven’t yet been persuaded, either.
Meanwhile, Clinton is having her own difficulties reconstructing President Barack Obama’s coalition of women, African Americans, Latinos, and millennials. Many young people who

assionately supported Clinton’s Democratic primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, have ignored Sanders’s own admonitions to support Clinton, and are saying that they’ll vote for third-party candidates, which would help Trump.

Since the two major parties’ national conventions in July, each candidate has alternately made gains and suffered losses. This month, just as Trump was rising in the polls, he attempted to separate himself from the racist “birther” movement, which falsely claims that Obama – America’s first black president – wasn’t born in the United States, and thus was ineligible for the presidency.

Trump’s remarks, terse and grudging, reminded everyone that he himself was one of the loudest “birthers” of all. His damage-control effort further backfired, because he falsely claimed that Clinton and her 2008 presidential campaign had started the birther rumor. Many news outlets finally used the word “lie” in their coverage of Trump, who had gone essentially unchallenged on past fabrications.

Trump’s recent polling gains say less about his improvement as a candidate than they do about Clinton’s own weaknesses and bad luck. Outside her base of passionate loyalists, Clinton has always had a voter-enthusiasm problem. She comes across to many as a packaged know-it-all, the super-smart girl who put off the boys in school. And she confronts a fair amount of sexism, even among her supporters. (A former Democratic governor recently declared that she should smile more. Would he have said that about a man?)
But Clinton has also created some of her own problems. Her poor judgment in using a private email server as Secretary of State, thereby risking the disclosure of classified aterial, has become a chronic burden for her campaign. She compounded the problem when she claimed, falsely, that her predecessors had done the same thing, and that State Department security officials had cleared it. And, unlike Trump, she received no deference from the press on this issue. 

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The email saga added to voters’ long-held impression that Clinton isn’t “honest and trustworthy,” and it exposed her to attacks from adversaries on the right. The highly conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch has continually called attention to the issue, forcing the disclosure of emails that Clinton hadn’t turned over to the State Department. (The FBI found nearly 15,000 emails on Clinton’s server that she hadn’t provided.) Numerous as-yet-undisclosed emails with the potential to damage Clinton may well be released before the election. 

While FBI Director James Comey decided not to recommend prosecution of Clinton for the email issue, he hurt her campaign by commenting that she’d been “extremely careless.” In any case, the choice not to prosecute had Republicans and conservative commentators howling that she’d received preferential treatment from the Democratic administration. Polls showed that 56% of respondents agreed that Clinton should have been prosecuted. 

A new issue for Clinton arose in August, when the Associated Press reported that numerous donors to the Clinton Foundation had received special treatment by the State Department during Clinton’s tenure there, mainly by winning an appointment with her. But many of these people would have received an appointment anyway; and there is no evidence that State Department policies were changed as a result. 

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has begun to report on questionable – possibly illegal – expenditures by Trump’s own charitable foundation. Trump, who hadn’t donated to his foundation since 2008, subsequently used its funds to buy personal items (including a six-foot portrait of himself) and to pay legal settlements. Previously, it had also been disclosed that funds from the Trump Foundation had been used to contribute to the election campaigns of attorneys-general in Florida and Texas, which would also be illegal. 

Finally, Clinton had the bad luck of falling ill, with cellphone video showing her nearly collapsing as she left early a ceremony in New York City commemorating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack. This added further fuel to right-wing media speculation that she is in poor health; Trump added the sexist charge that she lacks the “stamina” to be president. 

The press covering Clinton were furious to learn that two days earlier she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and had kept it to herself. But American presidential elections are brutal marathons, and it’s understandable that she did not want to cancel planned events. A later poll showed that the majority of the public agreed.

Clinton’s four-day convalescence came just as she was preparing to make the case for why people should vote for her, rather than why they shouldn’t vote for Trump. Just as she resumed campaigning, there were bombings in New York and New Jersey, and two more police shootings of unarmed African Americans, which spurred demonstrations in North Carolina, a swing state. The events took over the national dialogue, with Trump, as usual, playing on racial divisions and blaming Obama and Clinton.

This is the background against which the candidates will head into face-to-face debates, which tend to play a large (even excessive) role in shaping US elections. It would be unwise to call this election over before it is.

Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.

By Elizabeth Drew

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