Politics & Policy

Trump’s Struggles Ease Democratic Worries

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The liberal anxieties of a month ago seem like a distant memory.

As recently as last month, Democrats were nervous about their chances of holding the White House in November. Donald Trump had vanquished his last Republican rival on May 3 — far earlier than expected — and was enjoying a bump in his poll numbers as the party appeared to slowly unify behind him. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, continued to stumble in her drawn-out fight with insurgent populist Bernie Sanders, losing a series of contests in western states and causing Democrats to fret that their expected nominee was limping toward the finish line.

What a difference a few weeks make.

“Everyone I talk to is simply amazed at how much the Trump operation has imploded,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and a former longtime aide to Senate minority leader Harry Reid. “People got caught in the beginning underestimating him, and now folks are beginning to wonder if they gave him too much credit.”

With this week’s shocking FEC report capping off a horrendous month for the Trump campaign, Democrats across the country are finally allowing themselves a sigh of relief. They see Clinton, who finally finished off Sanders in a dramatic California blowout earlier this month, now demolishing Trump by virtually every traditional measurement: Her war chest has swollen to $42 million while Trump’s contains a paltry $1.3 million; she’s running ads in regions where he has yet to buy a minute of airtime; and her army of paid staffers and volunteers has fanned out across the same swing states where he’s shutting down campaign offices. National polls that had the two effectively tied a month ago now have Clinton up by six points. Polls of Utah and Arizona, states once reliably in the Republican column, show Trump floundering, and a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday has Clinton besting Trump by 8 points in all-important Florida.

It all adds up to a huge relief for Democrats, who have watched Trump fall apart just at the moment when it looked like Republicans were beginning to get behind him.

“I think it has taken a lot of angst out of the party,” Democratic strategist Brad Bannon says. “It’s not completely gone. But in terms of party unity, we are in a helluva lot better shape than Trump and the Republicans are.”

“The conventional laws of gravity and political physics do seem to be reasserting themselves,” says Craig Varoga, another D.C.-based Democratic strategist.

Though Democrats are pleased with the Clinton campaign’s general-election pivot — and in particular with her sustained attack on Trump’s multiple bankruptcies — they credit most of her newfound dominance to her opponent’s own actions. “Trump is doing more damage to his candidacy and the Republican party overall than any Democrat, on his or her best day, could possibly inflict,” says Varoga.

Still, Democrats are understandably hesitant to declare outright victory four months before the first votes are cast. The phrase “cautiously optimistic” crops up repeatedly, and skeptics point to Clinton’s diminishing leads in Ohio and Pennsylvania — Rust Belt states with a high percentage of the white, working-class voters Trump hopes to persuade with his NAFTA-bashing, anti-free-trade rhetoric.

It all adds up to a huge relief for Democrats, who have watched Trump fall apart just at the moment when it looked like Republicans were beginning to get behind him.

“Five minutes in politics is 25 years in everything else,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist from New York who once worked for Clinton. “And [Trump’s] economic argument has value.”

“Donald Trump’s probably had his worst month ever. Hillary Clinton’s had her best month thus far,” says Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist. “And in all the battleground polls — the good polls — Trump is within three points of her or less. That should tell you everything.”

But Marsh admits her worries make her a “pretty lonely” figure within the party, as most Democrats ride a wave of optimism after Trump’s sudden collapse. And while other strategists note the concerns of the dissenters, they’re hard-pressed to find a conceivable route to a Trump victory. No Republican has won a modern presidential election without carrying Ohio. And though the polls there are closer than several strategists would like, they say Trump will struggle to compete in Ohio without the support of Governor John Kasich, whose non-endorsement effectively denies Trump the statewide infrastructure his campaign sorely lacks.

“If you look at the electoral map as a whole, it’s pretty easy to see several different paths for Hillary Clinton,” says Manley. “It’s very difficult to see a viable one for Trump.”

And though the specter of a more presidential Trump was raised this week following the ouster of longtime campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in favor of veteran D.C. operator Paul Manafort, virtually no Democrat believes that the long-promised Trump “pivot” will ever materialize. “Manafort may occasionally nail [Trump] down and ask him to give a real speech,” says Bannon. “But [Trump]’s not gonna stay with that, because he doesn’t have the discipline or the temperament to do it.”

Continued defiance among some Sanders supporters is perhaps the only thing still giving Democratic insiders heartburn. But with the Vermont senator signaling stronger support for Clinton every day, they’re hopeful that her prospects in Ohio and Pennsylvania will be bolstered by the eventual Sanders endorsement. “I don’t think Trump’s Rust Belt strategy is gonna be all that viable,” says Manley, adding that he’s confident that Sanders supporters will eventually “do the right thing.”

With Trump continuing to crater and the Clinton juggernaut gaining ground, it’s easy to understand the newfound swagger on the left.

“Despite Paul Manafort’s soothing bedside manner, Trump’s starting to look like Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense,” says Varoga. “Somebody who’s already dead, but doesn’t know it.”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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