In a presidential contest driven by big events, Donald Trump is running out of opportunities to rebound. The Republican’s running mate Mike Pence turned in a solid but fact-challenged performance in the second of four general-election debates, but it hardly changed the shape of a race that has been moving in Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine’s favor for a week.
Indeed, what emerged from the vice presidential debate venue on Tuesday night was something close to a bipartisan consensus: Team Trump is still in need of a jolt.
“Pence had a high bar, he really after Trump’s performance last week had to change the trajectory of the campaign,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, on site at the debate on behalf of Clinton and Kaine. “He didn’t do that.”
Republicans’ sense of relief was palpable after Pence’s performance on Tuesday, but the nominee’s window is rapidly closing: early voting has begun in a handful of battleground states, like Iowa and Wisconsin, and it’s on the brink of starting in others like North Carolina and Florida. Clinton’s field operation has revved up on the ground in such states — with the campaign estimating that more than 40 percent of this year’s electorate in key states will vote prior to Election Day — and her high-profile surrogates like Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders are fanned out across the country hammering home her message that Trump is unfit to serve as president.
The real estate developer now has five long days to find a way to begin climbing back toward Clinton’s positions in national and battleground state polls before the next debate, which his allies concede he must win: any bump he might receive from that less-hyped debate is likely to be smaller than the one Clinton received from the highly-viewed first one, when she delivered what was referred to as a resounding victory.
And before he finds that bounce, he will need to dig out of a rut: Trump has been mired in a difficult stretch since that debate, starting with a re-litigating of his comments about Miss Universe Alicia Machado, to a series of reports about his business dealings with Cuba and Chinese steel, to the revelation that he may not have paid federal income taxes for 18 years after losing over $900 million in 1995, to the lack of any Clinton-felling revelation from WikiLeaks on Tuesday.
The coming stretch, then, is likely to see Trump’s team zero in on areas and demographics where Clinton appears to have taken a lead or start to pull away in the last week: recent statewide polls have vaulted her ahead in Florida and North Carolina while buttressing her leads in Pennsylvania and Colorado, even if Trump’s advantages in Ohio and Iowa look solid.
“What gives me confidence right now is we have a number of different paths to the White House,” said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. “I feel good about our prospects in all these battleground states right now, in part because of the ground game we have put in place, but the bar is really high for Donald Trump. I would argue he has to win Florida, he has to win North Carolina, he probably has to win Pennsylvania. And that’s a very narrow path.”
Clinton is now off the campaign trail for fundraisers, taking time to prepare for the next presidential debate on Sunday, as Trump takes off for Arizona and Nevada.
He has already started to try and subtly change course as his campaign directly chases the highly-educated white men and suburban women he will need to win back in order to top Clinton. But he has at times shown flashes of impatience, veering into jabs at former Bill Clinton despite his allies’ entreaties to stay away from the former president’s past.
On Tuesday, accordingly, even the sunniest Republicans urged Trump to take his cues from Pence — the former radio host whose ice cool demeanor shone throughout the otherwise hectic evening. When Trump sticks to the script, they noted, his numbers tend to improve more than when he’s inching off message.
“Stick to the themes, stay on the themes. You know, Mike Pence talked about the economy, national security, and about a broken Washington,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, on a night in which Pence repeatedly resisted answering Kaine’s attempts to drive a wedge between him and Trump. “If they can stay on those themes and not get pulled over onto all this other stuff, we’re going to do great.”
Former Virginia Governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Jim Gilmore was even more succinct: “He ought to be emphasizing the great performance of Governor Pence tonight.”
But, much like the candidate recently, some of Trump’s staunchest backers refused to fully acknowledge his deficit, writing off the polls as irrelevant and outside advice to course-correct as ill-conceived. To some of the Trump faithful, the very suggestion of a change was one bridge too far. Their nominee, insisted some, was right on track.
“I don’t think elections are about moments,” added Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, contending that many voters have yet to even tune into the election. “These last five weeks, people will say: I’m going to go vote. I’m going to settle in.”