When she formally launched her presidential campaign a year ago, Hillary Clinton was deemed by many the candidate of destiny — a political powerhouse who was certain to win the Democratic nomination and go on to claim the White House.
With seemingly limitless campaign financial resources and one of the biggest names in politics, the former secretary of state and U.S. senator appeared to be a shoe-in.
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But that was before she was saddled with a controversy over her gross mishandling of top secret State Department emails and documents, before the rise of Donald Trump as a powerful populist voice of angry white Americans and before liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont turned his upstart challenge into a full-fledged movement during the Democratic primaries.
Clinton escaped the clutches of Sanders and an FBI investigation of her private email server that nearly led to an indictment. And now, in the aftermath of the mid-summer Republican and Democratic national conventions and a torrent of outrageous pronouncements and missteps by Trump, Clinton appears to be back on track as the candidate of destiny.
Clinton has soared in the polls since the conventions, she is surging in many of the key battleground states like Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and she holds a substantial lead in the all-important contest for 270 electoral votes necessary to secure victory.
However, experts caution that her lead in the national polls and massive advantage in the Electoral College tally could prove to be ephemeral as the campaign heats up this fall. That’s especially true if Clinton somehow falters during her three nationally televised debates with the bombastic Trump, who has warned he will engage in no-holds-barred warfare. Trump was repeatedly underestimated by the media and his rivals throughout the 2016 primary season, yet eliminated his 16 rivals one by one and went on to secure the GOP presidential nomination.
Clinton will also feel the continued heat of congressional Republicans trying to make the case that she perjured herself in testimony to a House investigative committee and to the FBI on her handling of State Department emails.
Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said on Monday that while Clinton’s campaign is feeling highly confident today, there’s still plenty of time between now and November.
“They just have to avoid making the assumption that they’re going to win, and continue to be competitive,” he said. “Trump’s campaign hasn’t shown itself to be very fast on its feet, but they could certainly turn it into a race much more than it is now.”
“And campaigns are just unpredictable,” he added. “Things can happen. I mean, something could come up in regard to the Clinton server, in regard to the FBI interview, in any number of things. I think that they’ve got to keep their edge in the Clinton campaign, and I think their biggest enemy now is complacency.”
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Indeed, with growing signs that it would take a miracle for Trump to bounce back in the polls, especially in key battleground states, Clinton and her top aides are warning major donors and other Democrats that there is still time for Trump to turn things around before election day, according to The Hill. They noted that the U.K.’s June 23 “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union caught just about everybody by surprise and led to the demise of former Prime Minister David Cameron.
Yet there is plenty of evidence that the Clinton camp isn’t following its own advice to avoid overconfidence.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday in a front page article that Clinton’s “increasingly confident campaign” has begun crafting a detailed agenda for her first term, with particular focus on creating jobs, sharply increasing infrastructure spending and enacting immigration reform.
“The pace and scale of the planning reflect the growing expectations among Democrats that she will win and take office in January alongside a new Democratic majority in the Senate,” the article stated.
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Then Politico reported that Democrats have begun fighting among themselves about how big a margin of victory over Trump they should shoot for, and how much emphasis should be placed on “down ballot” races for the Senate and House.
Some Democrats are arguing that the bigger her win across the country, the bigger her mandate to govern. Others say the campaign should sharply focus on winning the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to claim the presidency, and not get hung up on the need to widen the political map. A new Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Rollcall rating published today shows Clinton picking up steam in seven battleground states. Clinton is currently projected to win 332 electoral votes to just 191 for Trump.
“I come from the school of keep your eye on the 270,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), told Politico. “The conservative approach is the proper approach: Make sure you have enough to win the Electoral College; don’t take your eye off those states. If you’re so strong in one state, then move to another — that’s all fine. But I think you have to be very wary and very careful.”
Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) said he disagrees. “I would hope that she’s got a clear political mandate to get things done the next four years.”
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Clinton enjoyed a seven- to eight-point lead on average in early August, although that lead began to recede late last week following a major shakeup in Trump’s campaign and his effort to stay more on script in delivering major policy pronouncements on terrorism, jobs and trade. Real Clear Politics shows Clinton now leading Trump nationally by a cumulative average of 5.5 percentage points.
However, Clinton continues to do far better than Trump in many of the swing states that will determine the outcome of the election. Nate Silver’s forecast at FiveThirtyEight shows Trump slightly gaining, up to a “15 percent chance of winning,” according to its model. That compares with a low of 11 percent a week ago.
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“But the evidence is conflicting enough that I don’t think we can rule out a larger swing toward Trump or, alternatively, that his position hasn’t improved at all,” Silver wrote.
And that is reason enough for Clinton and her advisers to keep their guards up.
Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, acknowledged today that the past two weeks were among the worst for Trump in the entire campaign. Yet she marveled that Clinton maintained a relatively low profile and failed to take full advantage of Trump’s dilemma.
“I think we’ll look back and say, ‘Why in the world didn’t Hillary Clinton’s campaign totally put us away in those two weeks?’” Conway said on CNBC.