It’s a thankless job being a Donald Trump surrogate these days. One of the requirements is making appearances on the Sunday talk shows and, on a day like today, when new polls show your candidate trailing in national opinion polls by double digits and behind in almost every swing state, pretend that he is still winning.
The job fell to campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus this weekend, and both twisted themselves in verbal knots casting the Trump campaign as something other than a foundering ship that’s headed to the bottom.
After promising to deliver a “closing argument” in a speech on Saturday in Gettysburg, PA, Trump instead dedicated part of his remarks to promising to sue each of the dozen or so women who have accused him of sexual assault. He also continued to complain that the entire election is somehow “rigged” against him.
He did eventually get to his “closing argument,” but it turned out to be a restatement of things Trump has already promised, put in the form of a list and relabeled as a “contract” with American voters for Trump’s first 100 days.
The reaction from the political press was largely negative, and the headlines from that speech were soon joined by others citing new and dismal poll numbers for the GOP candidate. A new tracking poll from ABC News shows Clinton at 50 percent nationwide, with Trump pulling in only 38 percent.
Trump now trails badly in key demographic groups, including women, minorities, college educated whites, and more. Even more damaging to the Republican Party as a whole is that the percentage of registered voters who told pollsters that they were likely to vote has fallen by 7 percent in the past two weeks.
(To be fair, the poll released today by ABC is the first of a series, so comparisons with earlier polls where the methodology might have been slightly different are somewhat imprecise.)
At the same time, CBS News released new battleground polling that shows Clinton leading Trump 46 percent to 43 percent in Florida. That leaves Trump within the 3.5 percent margin of error, but not by much.
CBS also released a poll of Texas -- take a moment to adjust to the fact that Texas is a battleground state at all -- showing Trump ahead 46-43, leaving Clinton well within the 4.5 percent margin of error.
The idea that Texas, of all places, should even be in doubt would probably have been enough to leave most Trump surrogates home in bed with the covers pulled up over their heads, but to their credit, Conway and Priebus did show up on Sunday. But their arguments are wearing thin.
Conaway, at least, conceded that Trump is trailing Clinton.
“We are behind,” she said. “She has some advantages, like $66 million in ad buys just in the month of September, thereby doubling her ad buys from August. Now, most of those ads are negative against Donald Trump, classic politics, personal destruction, cesspool kind of ads. And that she has tremendous advantages.”
What wasn’t said, of course, is that the reason Trump doesn’t enjoy that kind of ad support is that GOP donors have become less and less willing to support him and that he has fallen short of the $100 million of his own money he promised to spend on the campaign.
“She has a former president, happens to be her husband, campaigning for her,” Conway said. “The current president and First Lady, Vice President, all much more popular than she can hope to be. And she's seen as the incumbent. So our advantage going in when we're behind one, three, four points in some of these swing states that Mitt Romney lost to President Obama, Chuck our advantage is that Donald Trump is just going to continue to take the case directly to the people.”
But the problem with that argument is twofold. First, Trump’s version of going “directly to the people” involves appearing at giant rallies full of people who already support him. He has made little or no effort made to bring in new supporters. Second, Trump is increasingly spending his time at those rallies rehashing his grievances -- the sex assault charges, election “rigging,” media bias -- and the evidence is that much of his complaining is turning off even his own supporters.
Today’s ABC News poll found that Trump’s response to the sexual assault allegations and his refusal to commit to honoring the election results are broadly condemned across the electorate.
Conway argued that Trump is threatening his accusers with lawsuits as a way of defending himself. And his insistence that the election is rigged is somehow an example of him “standing up for the forgotten man and the forgotten woman. This is not about him. This is about the people.”
In an appearance on CBS News’s Face the Nation, RNC Chair Reince Priebus struggled mightily to articulate a case for Trump’s recent behavior, particularly his implicit threat to contest the election results if he doesn’t like them.
“What he’s saying is he wants to reserve all options and if there are grounds for a recount ‘I will exercise my options,’” Priebus said. He added, confusingly, “He is not willing to not concede if he loses and there’s no fraud.”
As for Trump’s claims of a rigged election, Priebus defended them.
“Listen, I think he’s trying to also tell his folks to watch out for this fraud that might occur,” he said, insisting against all available evidence that voter fraud is a significant problem in presidential elections.
But there are two key points working against Priebus here. First, his candidate isn’t warning that voter fraud might occur; he’s stating his certainty that it is already taking place while presenting no evidence. Second, while there have been isolated incidents of improper voting, there is absolutely no evidence of a widespread effort that could realistically have an impact on the results of a presidential election.
It’s got to be exhausting, for professionals like Priebus and Conway to defend a candidate even as his list of self-inflicted injuries grows. They can take solace in the fact that the campaign will be over in just over two weeks.
Unfortunately for them, their next job could involve defending themselves from fellow Republicans frustrated at them for enabling a candidate who appears to be doing lasting damage to the GOP.