It is possible that today’s new NBC/SurveyMonkey survey showing a robust Clinton lead represents the end of a brief “Trump surge” in the polls and the impending return of a status quo ante in which this is Hillary Clinton’s race to lose. It is also possible that Team Clinton believes its structural advantages over Team Garbage Fire in the way of paid media, analytics, and field operations are enough to put Trump away without any public pyrotechnics.
But if what we have seen the last week is what we will get going into Monday’s first presidential debate, then logic would dictate a very aggressive Clinton strategy during the debate itself.
Clinton’s two fundamental problems are persistently high minor-party undecided votes that allow Trump to remain competitive despite low absolute numbers, and growing indications of a GOP turnout advantage attributable to greater enthusiasm. The simple solution to both problems is to use the debates to raise the stakes for the election by leaving no one under the illusion that a “protest vote” or a decision to stay home will have anything less than apocalyptic consequences.
With Clinton’s speech targeting millennial voters yesterday, it is becoming clear she understands that left-leaning voters who are contemplating a vote for Johnson or Stein — or who may just stay home — are as big a threat to her prospects as the stubborn Republicans who are manifestly not following #NeverTrump conservative elites out of the Trump column. Monday’s first debate offers a heaven-sent opportunity for her to make it clear there is indeed a lot more than a dime’s difference between the two major-party candidates, and that life will take a turn for the worse for each and every meh liberal voter if Trump becomes president. Fortunately for her, the same aggressive tactics that could wake up such voters might also light a fire beneath the “base” voters who seem inclined to mosey on down to the polls on November 8, while Trump’s angry legions snake-dance toward victory in a slow-motion white riot.
Conversely, you’d figure Trump would be perfectly happy with the current dynamics, and might well spend the debate burnishing his thin credentials for knowing something about actual issues and offering a respectable, if occasionally incendiary, option for a change in America’s direction. I would not be surprised if that’s where Trump-whisperer Kellyanne Conway is pushing his debate prep. But Trump can never be counted on to act logically if there is a viable alternative, so the debate could wind up being a true slug-fest. To the extent that Hillary Clinton cannot afford a bored and complacent electorate, that could be very good for her.