A MONTH is a long time in politics — even in an election that’s been bitterly fought, blow after blow, for more than a year.
With 31 days to go, Donald Trump is ceding critical territory to Hillary Clinton. But two weeks ago, the precise opposite was afoot.
The lesson: anything can happen.
The wind is at Clinton’s back — she’s ahead not only in nationwide polling, but in the key battleground and vote rich-states that will ultimately deliver the Presidency to the victor on November 8.
On Monday (Australia time), the pair will come face-to-face for the second of three campaign debates.
The first — a well practised Clinton performance — was the very catalyst that has bled support from team Trump.
This makes the second Clinton’s to lose.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump defended his performance at the first presidential debate, saying he focused on the future, while his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, defended the status quo.
But Trump has shown again and again in this campaign that he knows how fight and how to win. For each of the 31 days ahead, the billionaire will be scouting for his next rebound.
Politics playing second fiddle
From the moment Trump made a grand entrance into the presidential race, riding down an escalator in his swank 5th Avenue offices, this has been a battle fought on personality over politics.
It’s been a tale of the brash, politically incorrect billionaire who tells it like it is versus the Washington insider who’s dogged by questions of trustworthiness.
A him versus her story where neither protagonist is very much liked, and support on both sides is united mainly by hatred for the opponent rather than passion for policy.
The personality game has meant that events like Clinton not mentioning her pneumonia, or Trump blustering through a debate have the potential to swing the pendulum quickly and dramatically because they confirm the public’s worst fears about the candidate.
For that reason, every moment — every public appearance — has the ability to change the race.
The state of play now is this: Trump trails Clinton by 3.2 per cent in average of nationwide polling. The New York Times’s election modelling gives her an 82 per cent chance of winning the presidency, while pollsters fivethirtyeight put the figure at 78.4 per cent.
The reason for this heavy Clinton lean is her commanding lead in the swing states — the 11 American battlegrounds where our hopefuls can pave their way to glory.
They’re the up-for-grabs states that are often vote rich and will decide the winner.
Some of the states, like Nevada, have a bellwether quality — the US version of Eden Monaro — and have a track record of mostly sticking with the winner.
Clinton leads in those.
Other states, Colorado, North Carolina and New Hampshire are simply tight and hard fought.
She leads in those too.
And then, there’s Florida — the grandest prize of the election.
It’s vote rich, holding 29 electoral college votes. Because of the makeup of the states already leaning heavily one way or the other, without Florida, Trump’s path to victory almost disappears.
And even if he wins the southern jewel, Clinton still has viable victory paths around him.
At the moment, the RealClearPolitics poll of polls has Clinton ahead in Florida by 2.4 per cent.
In all, polls have Clinton ahead in nine out of the 11 swing states — some polls say 10 out of 11 — leaving Trump with only Iowa and maybe Ohio.
US presidential elections are a numbers game — how to cobble together the right states and their electoral college votes to get past the magic 270 watermark.
Clinton’s position in the polls after the first debate has her back where she was months ago before the September Trump surge — on course for victory.
Trump has ace up his sleeve
But between Clinton and victory are several great unknowns.
One is the question of voter turnout.
Both sides need to hustle state by state and deploy fierce ground games to get Americans out of their homes and into polling booths on a cool November Tuesday.
Columbia University Political Science Professor Robert Shapiro said voter turnout was a critical flashpoint for both sides.
“Trump’s base of support among white voters is a more reliable voter base — meaning they are more likely to show up,” Prof Shapiro said.
“Clinton’s support comes from the Latino, black, Asian, 18-30 year old demographics and these are demographics that aren’t a strong in turnout.
“Although Obama shifted that to some extent.”
Emotion is key driver in sparking a desire in some people to make the trip to voting booth, which is another factor that favours Trump.
“The emotional level is high among Trump supporters — they are either very angry or they hate Clinton,” Professor Shapiro said.
However, he noted that the Democrats are traditionally better at mobilising voters at a grassroots level.
“What they have working for them is that they have a better ground game. It’s a better ground game than the Republicans.”
The second great unknown is the remaining two presidential debates.
Almost two weeks ago, Clinton outargued Trump with an agile, nuanced performance that balanced both sharp policy lines with attack angles.
Trump thumbed his nose at Clinton for being over-rehearsed, but the polls spoke in her favour in the weeks following the head to head.
Trump’s backers have rallied behind closed doors to prep their candidate for round two.
The second debate, on Monday, is a town hall forum style, allowing the candidates to respond to questions from the audience.
Their ability to relate to humans will on display to a mass audience in a way it never has been before in the campaign.
Layered on this is pressure for both candidates to outshine the other on policy arguments and sharp, cutting one liners.
And finally, the third unknown is the looming possibility of what’s known as an October Surprise.
Almost mythological in nature, the October surprise is a bombshell dropped in the month before the election — a game changer, a career destroyer and a president-maker all in one.
When the New York Times unveiled a portion of Trump’s tax returns from the 1990s this week, some pondered this might be it.
The Times revealed Trump filed a massive $916m loss, that could have precluded him from paying federal taxes for almost two decades.
But there’s still three weeks of October to run and the 1995 tax story could still be outdone.
Policies reveal the true differences
When the candidates go head to head on Monday, they will portray vastly different visions of America.
Trump’s America is a protectionist haven, where jobs are kept in house and most people — including the wealthy — are in line for a tax cut.
He respects Vladimir Putin, thinks China and Europe are swindling America, and is against international trade deals — a policy that differs from the Republican playbook.
He’s tough on immigration, particularly from Islamic countries, where he proposes a blanket ban with some exceptions.
He’s anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion and doesn’t think gun control needs to get any stricter.
Clinton, in contrast, will tax the wealthy more and dish out cuts in other places. Her jobs solution is focused more on social services and eduction. And while Trump wants to fight ISIS more aggressively on the ground, she touts her measured experience on the international stage. Clinton supports gay marriage, abortion and wants stricter gun control.
Her vision for America is one of inclusion and she opposes Trump’s hard line approach of Islamic immigrants and his proposal to build a wall at the Mexican border.
One area she matches with Trump is on trade deals — Clinton says she is opposed to the Transpacific Partnership like Trump, despite previously hailing its virtues.
Trump needs traditional republicans
In the battle for voter turnout, the Trump campaign is working hard to sure up its Republican base.
The unconventionality of the Trump candidacy means there are deep fears traditional republican voters won’t turn out to support the candidate.
This week, his Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence played the only VP debate in a measured — almost anti-Trump — style, straight from the traditional republican playbook.
Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate between Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine fired up social networks like Facebook and Twitter as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton weighed in on social media. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday recaps how the conversation played out on second screens.
It was a sign to the base that while Trump might not be the type of candidate they were used to, Pence was a steady hand.
This week, too, Trump will campaign alongside Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Ryan is the nation’s highest ranked Republican and has long had tension with Trump. Their move to stump together in Wisconsin is a signal to republicans all over the country that they must come out to support their man.
Clinton, meanwhile, has been bringing out Democratic favourites for months.
Stumping for her, repeatedly, have been former President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Tuesday, November 8US Presidential election
With just a month until it’s all over, every moment matters.
“Everyone always asks how much does the campaign matter — how much does the debate matter? In a close campaign, the answer is everything matters,” Professor Shapiro said.
“And what happens doesn’t need to matter in every state — but if it has an impact in the battlegrounds, it means something.”
It’s been 16 months since Donald Trump made that grand entrance on an escalator into the foyer of his swanky Fifth Avenue offices to declare he wanted to be president.
They were the days when he was scoffed at and considered a joke candidate. The days when a dynastic Clinton versus Jeb Bush rivalry seemed like a certain plot line for the 2016 election.
But piece by piece, Trump turned expectations on their head.
All eyes are on the battlegrounds — and every move the candidates make on the national stage.
A month might be a long time in politics, but for one candidate it won’t be long enough.