With less than three weeks to go until Americans vote for their next president on November 8, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump rounded off perhaps the most contentious and rancorous presidential debate cycle in US history with a third and final bout in Las Vegas.
It was Trump who had the most to prove: after a terrible first debate performance, a devastating scandal over his comments about groping women, and a bitter and bullying second round with Clinton, he’s sinking drastically in the polls – possibly to a point of no return.
He embraced his last chance to go after Clinton in person and came out swinging, speaking forcefully and fiercely against her and calling her out on various evasions and dodges. He began quieter and more measured than in previous debates, but quickly reverted to his typical habits – interjecting retorts and insults, calling Clinton a “nasty woman”, repeatedly saying “wrong” into the microphone while she talked.
But now the debates are done and the tone for the rest of the campaign largely set, Trump’s closing strategy has started to come into view. Here’s what the struggling Republican candidate seems to be planning to do with the election’s final weeks.
Complaining about electoral fraud
Trump has lately taken to decrying the election as “rigged”, a tactic clearly intended to deflect blame for what looks to be a likely defeat. In this final debate he said that he would wait until the election was over to decide whether he would accept the results, keeping the people “in suspense”.
Clinton called this “horrifying” and accused Trump of “talking down our democracy”. But as far as rallying the faithful goes, Trump is making a savvy move; after all, the more the other side denies the possibility of fraud, the more it fuels his argument.
Scientists would call this claim unfalsifiable, because there is no scenario in which it can be negated. If Trump loses, he can blame electoral fraud; if he wins, he can say he triumphed over electoral fraud; and any official investigation that says he’s wrong can still be dismissed as part of the conspiracy.
If polls continue to show Clinton gaining in states Trump absolutely has to win, many of them states he thought he had locked up, expect him to push the election tampering story even further.
What makes this argument so effective for Trump is his outsider image, which means he cannot be held accountable for the system he’s trying to dominate. And if he loses the election and his followers are left with no confidence whatsoever in the US’s democracy, he won’t be held accountable for that either. But he should be.
Playing the underdog
Though it didn’t come up in the final debate, Trump and his camp have lately made a lot of their enormous disadvantage in terms of campaign resources. Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has complained that Clinton “has so many advantages. She has endless money, she has a lot of the media. She has a very popular president and first lady out there campaigning for her”.
Trump’s campaign is using it as a reason to blame for his own poor performance in the polls. The theme is a dependable one: Trump is not only an outsider, but an underdog.
By chalking Clinton’s apparent electoral popularity up to favourable coverage and monied allies, Conway is also blaming Trump’s decline on his lack of support from donors, pundits, and key Republican officials, including both living Republican presidents – one of whom is rumoured to in fact be voting for Clinton.
A determination to continue against all odds may be the most appealing character trait Trump has left. After all, the only way to remain an underdog is to go on when people don’t believe you can win. So as he approaches election day, expect Trump to disavow the Republican party and its increasingly unsympathetic leaders with mounting volume and bitterness.
As he sees it, the party that never quite cottoned to him is no longer worthy of him – and that suits the rationale for his candidacy just fine.
One of the more directly effective criticisms Trump levelled at Clinton in their final face-off was that she is part of the Washington establishment – business as usual, old news, someone tried and tested and found wanting. He said to her: “The one thing you have over me is experience, but it’s bad experience.”
In short, he’s trying to turn her decades of experience at the centre of government from an asset into a drawback. It’s a shrewd manoeuvre, as it turns his own almost unprecedented lack of governmental experience into an advantage. He is an outsider, and outsiders are fresh, new, and innovative.
But listening to Trump, it’s easy to forget that he does indeed have experience of other kinds – being on camera, running organisations, and spending millions of dollars.
The difference is that Clinton has spent countless hours negotiating, charming, and trying to cast herself and her work in a favourable light, whereas Trump is accustomed to issuing demands, provoking offence, and ignoring others’ opinions of him. This has had huge implications for his campaign, especially in its final weeks.
Televised debates by their very nature put personality front and centre into US presidential campaigns, though in past years, the bad reviews of candidates’ performances tended to be no harsher than labelling 1988’s Michael Dukakis “dull” or 2012’s Mitt Romney “uptight”.
But in this last debate, the facial expressions Trump pulled while Clinton spoke will have read to many as smug and insincere. To his critics, his attitude came across to as desperate; to people as yet unpersuaded, it can hardly have been appealing. Trump needed to convey poise, to prove to undecided voters that he’s fit for the position he seeks. He did not accomplish that.
As the discussion of Trump hinges ever more on his personality, his outsider cachet will wear off, and he will likely revert to the personality traits he knows best. And as his tumultuous debate season has shown – including in the polls – these do not serve him well.