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On the national stage, the Trump train stalls

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he leaves a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he leaves a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. -AP

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump hasn’t quite asked the dead to vote for him, but he’s nearly there. “I joke a lot as I say if you’re sick, if you just got the worse prognosis that a doctor can give you, if you’re lying in bed and you just know you’re not going to make it – you have to get up on November 8th and you have to vote,” he said Thursday. At least nine times in the speech to evangelical leaders in key swing state Florida, the brash 70-year-old billionaire – sometimes speaking in an uncharacteristically low voice – called on them to ensure their parishioners cast their ballots for him.

The Republican presidential candidate is a bit worried about his chances in November against Hillary Clinton, and he’s not exactly hiding it. And his team is struggling to transform his winning primary campaign model into an unbeatable national election machine. During the Republican primaries, the Manhattan real estate mogul and former reality television star ignored the experts and the pundits who told him to be more “presidential,” to stop insulting his rival and to prepare his speeches.

To everyone’s surprise, Trump’s iconoclastic strategy worked. He was the last man standing, and won the Republican Party’s nomination. But since officially becoming the party’s standard-bearer, at the urging of his aides, he has given more policy-driven speeches using a teleprompter. But part of him visibly chafes at the constraints, and he’s quick to go off-script – and off-message, as evidenced by some of his near-daily missteps in recent weeks: over Russia, the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in action, on guns and Hillary Clinton, and on the Islamic State group and President Barack Obama.

“They would like to see it be a little bit different, a little more modified. I don’t like to modify. But that’s what I’ve done. We’ll see where it takes me,” he told Time magazine on Tuesday. Floating from one plan to the next, Trump remains incapable of outlining his campaign strategy. When he is asked to do so, he says he relies on his instincts. He stages rallies in seemingly random locations, sometimes in states that are unwinnable. “The crowds we’re getting are tremendous. So I don’t know what that indicates. But it’s got to indicate something good,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll find out on November 8.”

Trump has a handful of stock campaign pledges: To build a wall along the US-Mexico border, curb immigration, destroy the Islamic State group and bring industrial jobs back to America. But winning a presidential election historically requires more than just catchy slogans. Clinton’s campaign team has designed a strategy that centers on consolidating support among black and Hispanic voters for the former secretary of state and first lady, and on winning over white working-class voters in swing states Pennsylvania and Ohio, which could be the key to victory.

The strategy hinges on a strong grassroots game, with local paid and volunteer campaign workers on the ground. It also requires a massive communications budget. According to ABC News, the Democrat’s campaign and her main super PAC (political action committee) have spent nearly $93 million on television ads against just $11 million spent by outside groups backing Trump. The Republican’s official campaign committee has so far spent nothing on television ads – practically unheard of in modern campaigns.

Trump is acting as if he is still in the more welcoming world of the Republican primaries, in which 31 million people voted. In 2012, nearly 130 million people voted in the November presidential election. So far, Trump’s expected appeal to middle-class, middle-of-the-road voters has not materialized, according to opinion polls. “Preferences are substantially baked by this point in time. There’s not much cooking time left,” said Christopher Wlezien, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Trump’s unpredictability, seen as an advantage in terms of a possible campaign rebound in September, “can be a good thing and a bad thing, right? But it’s not clear it’s been a good thing in the last two weeks,” Wlezien told AFP. Not only has Trump dropped off in the national polls (48 percent for Clinton against 40 percent for Trump, according to HuffPost Pollster), but he is also in danger in the so-called swing states that has often been key to Republican wins.

A new poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News show him trailing Clinton in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. The US presidential election is an indirect one – voters in each state technically pick a slate of party electors – not one of the candidates – when they cast their ballots. The winner needs a majority of the 538 votes in the Electoral College, or 270. Experts for the specialized political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia are predicting that Clinton will win easily, with 347 electoral votes against 191 for Trump.

“Trump is behind, and he may not have many ways to catch up,” said Kyle Kondik, the newsletter’s managing editor. Faced with the prospect of defeat, Trump so far seems oddly detached. “If at the end of 90 days I fall short… even though I’m supposed to have a lot of good ideas, it’s OK. I go back to a very good way of life,” he told CNBC. “It’s either going to work or I’m going to, you know, I’m going to have a very, very nice long vacation.” – AFP

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