With the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate in the can and the second presidential debate fast approaching, Donald Trump is behind the 8-ball in the polls. Nate Silver of 538 says, “State polls we’ve gotten over the past 3 days are starting to look like early August or June, i.e. when Clinton had a BIG lead nationally.” In the RealClearPolitics average, Clinton now leads in all the major swing states but Iowa (Trump +5.0) and Ohio (Trump +2.4); she’s ahead in Florida (+2.2), Pennsylvania (+6.0), Michigan (+5.0), North Carolina (+1.3), Colorado (+3.3), Nevada (+1.4), Wisconsin (+5.0), Minnesota (+4.3), Virginia (+7.0), New Hampshire (+6.0). Were the election to be held today, Clinton/Kaine would pull down 322 electoral votes. That means Trump would be just 6 electoral votes better than Mitt Romney against Barack Obama.
So, what does Trump have to do to turn this all around?
1. Win. Trump had all the systemic advantages going into the last debate. He was dead even in virtually all of the state polls. He only had to appear sane; Hillary had to appear honest. That’s different this time. He’s running from behind, which means he needs to throw her off her game. Look for him to start throwing Hail Marys on character – he’ll hit her hard with the emails, with her intimidation of Bill’s alleged sexual harassment and rape victims. He needs her to lose. It’s not enough to hold ground.
2. Avoid The Baiting. Hillary defeated Trump by picking on his insecurities, then watching him implode. He spent the next week babbling nonsensically about Miss Universe. Now Trump needs to hold it together. He needs to appear solid and stoic. He needs to channel Mike Pence. Hillary, by contrast, needs to trigger Trump just once more. If she succeeds, he’s toast. She established the image of Trump as unstable. Now she’ll go in for the kill.
3. Go On Offense. Pence did a great job in the VP debate because he didn’t attempt to defend Trump. Instead, he turned every Trump assault into an attack on Hillary. That worked beautifully, since Tim Kaine was utterly unprepared to defend Clinton on the record. Trump must do the same – but he’s handicapped by the fact that he simply doesn’t know policy the way Pence does. That means he’s got to get his talking points down, and quickly.
Trump must emerge from Sunday night’s debate victorious if he wants to be president. That’s a tough job – and it will require him not just to control himself, but to become a scalpel rather than a hammer. If he accomplishes that, it will be one of the more amazing political transformations in recent memory.