Can Trump still win? For the Republican Party, which has lost two presidential elections in a row, this one is starting to feel uncomfortably familiar.
Poll after poll shows the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, trailing the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. The betting odds and prediction markets indicate the same thing. The state-by- state polls spell trouble for Trump the same way the national ones do. If it’s really over at this point, Democrats panicked by the prospect of a Trump presidency can breath a sigh of relief. Republicans can turn their thoughts, for the third cycle in a row, to long-term rebuilding.
But it’s not over. There are at least five ways that Trump could yet pull a victory from the jaws of defeat. Here’s what it might take:
— Trump needs to up his game. This is probably the most important point. If Trump is as incorrigible as his critics claim, then it may be hopeless. But in the primary campaign, he showed an impressive ability to improve over time and to learn from his mistakes. His debate performance got better with practice. After coming in second to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Trump turned around and won in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
For Trump, at this point, upping the game would mean staying relentlessly, almost robotically on message. It would mean avoiding being lured by the press or being tempted by his own impulsive sense of humor into improvising remarks that wind up fueling the outrage or distortion industry. It would mean executing well on some of the nitty-gritty details of getting out the vote, while avoiding the trap of squandering lots of campaign cash on expensive television commercials. Those ads enrich the consultants who make them, but don’t sway many votes, as Jeb Bush and his donors learned the hard way.
— National and international events need to turn Trump’s way. The assassinations of Dallas cops and the wave of Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe and Orlando helped Trump, whose campaign emphasizes law, order and a hard line against Islamist extremism. To the extent that Clinton is running for a third term of the Barack Obama presidency, the bloodier and more chaotic the world looks under President Obama’s leadership, the more likely it is that voters will agree with Trump’s case that it is time for a change.
— The Clinton campaign needs to make some of its own mistakes, or run into a string of bad news. This could happen in a variety of ways. Bill Clinton could lose his cool at a Black Lives Matter heckler. Hillary Clinton could have an unexpected health problem. More of her emails could surface, with embarrassing disclosures. There’s a remote chance that she could be thrown off by aggressive questioning in a debate.
— The polls need to be wrong, or at least off. Some primary polls substantially understated Trump’s support. Perhaps he has been so thoroughly stigmatized by the Clinton campaign and the mainstream press that, as Trump himself has suggested, his supporters are too abashed to make themselves known to pollsters. Perhaps polls predicting a large Clinton victory will lead to overconfidence on the part of her supporters; they might think they don’t even need to bother to show up to vote. (Such polls might also discourage Trump supporters and depress their turnout.)
— The third-party, fourth-party, and fifth-party candidates need to work to Mr. Trump’s advantage. If Bernie Sanders’ young and intense followers gravitate toward the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, or independent conservative Evan McMullin rather than to the Clinton campaign, it could potentially work to Trump’s advantage.
Will enough of this happen to make Trump a winner? Unless the numbers start to move in his direction, Republicans will begin to shift their thinking to keeping Clinton’s margin of victory small enough to prevent a landslide that costs the GOP control of Congress.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.