Brace your­self for an even uglier cam­paign

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— It may be hard to imag­ine, but I fear this elec­tion cam­paign is go­ing to get worse – maybe a lot worse – before it gets bet­ter. By the time it’s done, the whole na­tion may feel like it needs a shower.

I base this de­press­ing pre­dic­tion on three as­sump­tions: Polls show­ing the Obama coali­tion com­ing to­gether be­hind Hil­lary Clin­ton are cor­rect; Don­ald Trump does not want to be em­bar­rassed as a mas­sive loser; and the Repub­li­can Party cares more about keep­ing its ma­jor­ity in the House than about Trump’s ten­der feel­ings. Any of these premises can be wrong, but I think they’re sound.

The log­i­cal re­sult is not pretty. Those who be­lieved this cam­paign hit rock-bot­tom long ago should keep in mind one of Sen. John McCain’s fa­vorite say­ings: “It’s al­ways dark­est before it’s to­tally black.”

First the polls: Fol­low­ing the two con­ven­tions, Clin­ton has taken a clear lead over Trump. The Real Clear Pol­i­tics av­er­age of re­cent na­tional polls has her at 47.5 per­cent with Trump at 40.5 per­cent, by any mea­sure a healthy ad­van­tage. More­over, in the swing states that will de­cide the elec­tion, Clin­ton leads Trump by de­ci­sive mar­gins in Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan, Vir­ginia and New Hamp­shire; and by a smaller but sig­nif­i­cant mar­gin in Florida.

Ohio and North Carolina are seen as essen­tially tied. But a re­cent At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion poll had Clin­ton lead­ing Trump by 4 points in Ge­or­gia, a red state that Democrats haven’t won since 1992. And a re­cent CBS/YouGov poll showed Clin­ton within two points of Trump in Ari­zona, which has voted for a Demo­crat only once since 1948.

In other words, if the elec­tion were held to­day it would be what is tech­ni­cally called a butt-kick­ing. Closer ex­am­i­na­tion of the polls sug­gests the coali­tion that twice elected Barack Obama as pres­i­dent — led by women and mi­nori­ties — is re­assem­bling for Clin­ton; and that col­lege-ed­u­cated whites, who nar­rowly fa­vored Mitt Rom­ney, are mov­ing into Clin­ton’s col­umn as well.

The Trump cam­paign may be hop­ing for some sort of deus ex machina game-changer — more em­bar­rass­ments from the Clin­ton emails, say, cour­tesy of Rus­sian hack­ers or Wik­iLeaks. But that’s not a plan.

It seems to me that there are two things Trump can do. One is to raise ques­tions in vot­ers’ minds about Clin­ton. Hav­ing al­ready called her “Crooked Hil­lary” and ques­tioned

WASH­ING­TON

her men­tal com­pe­tence, it’s hard to imag­ine how the at­tacks could get much nas­tier. But I’m afraid they will.

Trump can also try to bring non-col­legee­d­u­cated whites — his strong­est de­mo­graphic — out to vote in un­prece­dented num­bers. The­o­ret­i­cally this might al­low him to pick off a Rust Belt state or two, al­though it’s a long shot. “I love the poorly ed­u­cated,” he said in Fe­bru­ary. He needs even more of them to love him back.

So I ex­pect Trump to dou­ble down not just on his at­tacks against Clin­ton but on the two is­sues that won him his white work­ing-class fol­low­ing: im­mi­gra­tion and trade. That means more big­otry, more xeno­pho­bia and more to­tally un­re­al­is­tic prom­ises about the mir­a­cles that he and his team of rich-guy eco­nomic ad­vis­ers will mag­i­cally per­form.

It doesn’t help him that the Clin­ton cam­paign has bought time dur­ing the Olympics broad­casts for an ad in which Trump ac­knowl­edges that his Trump-branded shirts are made in Bangladesh and his neck­ties in China. Does it even oc­cur to Trump that any­one might ever ex­pect him to prac­tice what he preaches? Sorry, that was a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion.

Mean­while, the im­pli­ca­tions of the re­cent polls are not lost on the GOP lead­er­ship. If Clin­ton de­feats Trump soundly, Repub­li­cans prob­a­bly will lose their ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate. But if she wins in a land­slide, the party could lose con­trol of the House as well.

“If we fail to pro­tect our ma­jor­ity in Congress, we could be hand­ing Pres­i­dent Hil­lary Clin­ton a blank check,” House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote in an ur­gent fundrais­ing ap­peal Thurs­day. Com­ing after a dis­as­trous week in which Trump had at­tacked the Gold Star par­ents of a Mus­lim-Amer­i­can Army cap­tain killed in Iraq, Ryan’s words were seen by many who fol­low pol­i­tics as a recog­ni­tion that the time may have ar­rived for dam­age con­trol.

Some Repub­li­cans will be un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure, ei­ther from their con­stituents or their con­sciences, to dis­tance them­selves from Trump and per­haps even re­scind their en­dorse­ments. How will Trump re­act to such be­trayal? Surely by lash­ing out, which is how he deals with any per­ceived slight.

This ought to be a de­bate about the na­tion’s fu­ture. Thanks to Trump, it prom­ises in­stead to be an uned­i­fy­ing brawl with kick­ing, bit­ing and goug­ing al­lowed.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post.com.

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