Trump and Clinton Decide to Finish Race as They Began It

The dynamics and strategies of the presidential contest are largely set into place.

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Their presidential runs officially began three days apart in June of last year. Hillary Clinton was the wonky candidate excited by policy proposals and with a long résumé of government experience. Donald Trump was the brash real-estate billionaire eager to raze the old political establishment and rebuild it in his image.

As two weeks of nominating conventions came to a close Thursday, it was clear that their respective pitches to voters remain essentially the same. The primary race took their tolls on Trump and Clinton, but the contents of each convention showed that both candidates are confident that the fundamentals of their pitch to voters remains the best way to win the White House when the nation votes in 102 days.

Trump and Clinton

Trump and Clinton

Source: Bloomberg

"My guess is where we end up is where we were a month ago, which is nationally a competitive race where she’s got pretty significant battleground advantages," said David Plouffe, the manager of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. 

"What Trump needed to do was unify and energize Republicans," Plouffe said. "He didn't unify them, but he probably energized his supporters. Clinton has to improve the enthusiasm so that Democrats are as excited about her as they are about beating Trump. We'll see if she did that."

Trump headed into his convention with a base of white, working class voters who strongly backed his proposals to ban Muslims, deport undocumented immigrants, and build a wall on the Mexican border, and emerged with enough support from that group to tie the race, according to polls out this week.

Clinton vs Trump
Andre Tartar/Bloomberg

Clinton, meanwhile, continued her methodical approach aimed at broadening her coalition. She reached out to liberal supporters for her main primary rival, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as to disaffected Republicans by defending their 2008 nominee, John McCain, and quoting former President Ronald Reagan, one of the party's most popular figures.

There were stark contrasts in both substance and style between their speeches and conventions, which mark the official start of the general election. But the two nominees shared a sense of urgent desperation as they sought to unite their divided parties and rally their core supporters.

Most voters seem to agree. A poll this month from ABC News and the Washington Post showed 71 percent of voters believe the country is on the wrong track, the highest level in five years. A CNN polls this week showed the same percentage of voters also say they're angry, the highest rate since 2011.

"The Republican convention by any conventional standards was a hot mess, but it was effective in that Trump bounced out of the convention and, in the polls post-convention, has opened up a lead against Secretary Clinton," said Steve Schmidt, who served as a senior adviser to McCain.

"Trump's message is squarely aimed a segment of the population—and this is most people—that believes the country is on the wrong track and that every institutional is on the verge of collapse," he said. "Trump's speech was dark in tone, but consistent with the national mood."

Yet Clinton—and most of the speeches that proceeded her in Philadelphia this week—attempted to offer voters a hopeful vision of the future. While Trump portrayed himself as the lone person who could restore the nation, Clinton called for Americans to "come together to make our country freer, fairer, and stronger."

Clinton's message was also buttressed by a week of speeches from the Democratic Party's most popular figures, while Trump suggested he was happy that four of his party's last five presidential nominees skipped his convention.

But voters will ultimately choose between two people: Clinton and Trump. And at this stage of the race, there are relatively few voters left to convince. 

While the basic tenets of the candidates' pitches to voters remains unchanged, their focus will begin to sharpen on the swath of America whose votes are up for grabs. The race will tighten to about 10 states that both campaigns view as competitive, and specifically to Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. No candidate since 1960 has won the White House without taking at least two of these three states.

A poll from Quinnipiac University found that about 20 percent of voters in each of the three states were undecided, planning to vote for a third party candidate, or refusing to cast a ballot. The same polls shows these undecided voters are mostly independent women.

“There is a group in the middle that’s not crazy about either one, and still don’t know what they’re going to do," said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican who was senior adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "They have a real problem with the bombastic, erratic nature of Trump, and there is a real lingering lack of trust in her. 

"They want someone to reach out to them and they have not seen it yet," Rath said. "And we’re walking away from the conventions in much of the same place we started.”

How the candidates chose to run their conventions spoke volumes. So did how they chose to behave when their opponent had the stage. 

When Republicans met in Cleveland last week, Clinton—as she’s done for much of the campaign so far—mostly avoided the spotlight. She connected with important pieces of the Democratic Party’s base as she spoke to government workers in Las Vegas and teachers in Minnesota. There were no news conferences, continuing a streak that has lasted eight months. A mid-week news release from the campaign touted a new Spanish-language website.

It was hardly the stuff of front-page headlines. Nor was that the intent.

On the other hand, Trump turned the volume to 11 this week as he tried to steal Clinton’s show. Counter-programming during a competing political convention is no easy task, which is why campaigns usually don’t try. But this Republican presidential nominee—obsessed by TV ratings and public opinion polls—instead launched one of his most aggressive weeks of campaigning in months.

Usually content with one public event a day, Trump held multiple rallies in consecutive days. The stretch was highlighted by a stem-winding news conference on Wednesday in which Trump invited a foreign state to meddle in the nation's presidential contest, suggested he was open to recognizing disputed Baltic land as Russia’s, and reversed himself—yet again—on a potential minimum wage hike.

Trump’s gambit invited accusations of treason from Democrats and some quarters of his own party. But Trump prides himself on driving media coverage, and he succeeded in scoring heavy coverage on cable news shows all day and front-page headlines in Ohio, Florida, and even Philadelphia, the host city of the Democratic National Convention.

Trump's harsh messaging has also created an opening for Clinton and the Democrats to provide the hopeful and inspirational message to voters. Obama's speech on Wednesday was a stirring and optimistic defense of the American character. In a year when voters are frustrated and angry, he projected steadiness as he described change as a hard and difficult process that takes time and patience. 

"Almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago," Obama said. "America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election."

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