With the 2016 presidential election only two months away, Mark Alderman, Blake Rutherford and Howard Schweitzer discussed the effects of the summer's developments on both campaigns.
Blake: Thank you very much, and thanks everybody who's joining us live today. My name is Blake Rutherford, and I'm, as always, joined by my colleagues, Mark Alderman and Howard Schweitzer of Cozen O'Connor Public Strategies. This is Road to the Oval Office, and it's after Labor Day, guys, and we're back.
Blake: It's good to be with both of you. Well, we're all in Washington today. The city is waking up from the August recess. The political climate is, and I'll obviously want your take on this, perhaps as peculiar and as potent as we've seen at any point since we all started paying attention to politics, but here is where we are. We came out of the conventions in Cleveland, in Philadelphia both, from a city perspective, very well executed. From a message perspective, I think both sides thought that they got their message out. We want to ... I want to talk a little bit about kind of post-convention bounces in a minute, but then everybody sort of went away a little bit.
Hillary Clinton went on a fundraising tear, raising more than $140 million in the month of August. Trump raised money as well, but they've kind of kick started their campaigns again, as you would normally expect, after Labor Day. The polls are interesting, but before we get to that, Howard, I want to start with you. What's the state of the race? What do you think about where these 2 candidates are, heading into the fall, and who had the better summer?
Howard: I think Hillary initially had the better summer, Blake, and Trump has come on strong. Recently, he's gotten more disciplined. Once he threw Manafort out and brought in his new team, he's much better positioned. It's tight. Look at Ohio and Florida. The polls are basically a statistical dead heat right now, and that's not changing anytime soon. I think the race is a lot tighter than it looked like it was 20 or 25 days ago when it looked like Hillary was running away with it. Notwithstanding the fact that, or my view that the Republican nominee puts his foot in his mouth every day, and I think it's going to continue to be tight. I have basically 2 reasons for that. One is that Trump is still must-see TV. I don't care what side it is you're on. Any time he opens his mouth, people want to be watching. They want to hear what he's going to say. For whatever reason. The other reason is that Hillary is not. Except for one thing, her email. That's still out there, obviously in a major way. That's what they want to hear her talk about.
Everyone wants to hear what Trump is going to say. The only thing people really want to hear from Hillary is how she's going to respond to [questions 00:03:16] about all the bad things she's done, and that's not good for her.
Blake: Yeah, we'll come back. We'll definitely come back to the emails, because this is really a situation that just, to your point, Howard, won't go away, continues to dog this campaign, but Mark, stepping back from the specifics, same question to you. State of the race, from your perspective, who had a better summer?
Mark: Well, Howard's, of course, right that Hillary had a better summer, until the end, when it tightened, and it is tighter. I always thought it was going to be tighter. I never believed the bounce was real, but having said that, I think we are where Tim Kaine told us he thinks we are the other day. You and I were lucky enough to be at a lunch here in Washington for Senator Kaine, and he said, "You'd rather be us than them," and I agree. I'd rather be us, and no secret that I'm on that side. I'd rather be us than them. For 3 reasons. Number 1, notwithstanding the severe tightening, the disappearance of the bounce, and the tightening of the polls, it's not actually yet even in the polling average, a tie. She's still ahead by a little bit in all of the national averages, and she's ahead by a good bit in the swing state averages, so even the tightening polls you'd rather be her than him. Number 1.
Number 2, we're going to find out if in 2016, in the age of Twitter, whether a ground game still matters. Because she has one and he doesn't. Even they don't dispute that. I'd rather be us than them on Election Day when, we hope, on our side, a ground game still matters. May matter less than it has in the past, because as Howard says, Trump is must-see TV, and Trump is the king of social media, but number 3, the map is [her friend 00:05:40]. This is not a popular vote. This is an electoral college election, and she has more ways to 270 than he does. That is something that nobody should rely on. That, too, is tighter than it was, but on the map, you'd rather be her than him too.
Blake: I want to sort of dive into the map a little bit, for everybody who's listening in and curious about what we mean when we talk about the map. Howard, you alluded to this statistical tie in Florida right now. Statistical tie, although Trump, performing better in Ohio, and we're seeing that Senate race really tilt towards the Republicans.
Blake: It looks like Rob Portman's probably going to win, and that might have an effect. North Carolina, holding steady for Hillary. I mean, still very close, but holding steady for Hillary. Colorado holding steady for Hillary, although not by a lot. New Hampshire holding steady for Hillary, and as we know, big Senate race there as well. Iowa, Trump doing better in Iowa. Virginia, tight. Looked like it was really going to go Hillary's way, and that number has come back a little bit; and then Arizona, interestingly enough, a tight race, and a big, big Senate race there as well. Then finally, our home state of Pennsylvania, which Hillary continues to do well. I think we saw polls where she was up 8, 9, 10. Coming back a little bit, but holding pretty steady ...
Blake: ... 5, 6 points. That's what the ... To your point, Mark, that's what the map looks like, and Trump, it's not enough for Trump to sort of [get 00:07:26], to narrow this a little bit. It's not enough for him to just win Florida and Ohio.
Blake: He's going to have to do more than that.
Mark: Without going too deep into these weeds here, call it 10 states, 9 states, 11 states. There are plus or minus 10 states that are going to pick the next president, because the other 40 are already locked down. Of those 10 states, because of where the other 40 leaves each of them, he has to win more than she does. Period. He has to win more than she does, and she's ahead in more than he is. That's where we are. Can he do it? Anybody who doesn't think Donald Trump can be the next President of the United States is a fool. Of course he can do it, but again, he's got to win more than she does, and she's ahead in more than he is.
Blake: Howard, how does ... Yeah, I mean, I want to get your perspective, and then I want to talk about how does Trump do it, because we've got a big event coming up in a couple of weeks, which is the first debate ...
Howard: I mean, I think, for one thing, I discount the polling a little bit in the sense that I think his support is being under-polled. Because people won't admit what they're going to do when they go into the voting booth.
Mark: I agree.
Howard: I think that's obviously statistically impossible to factor in here, but I think it's there and real. Then, look, these things change, and I think the debates, Blake, you're right. I mean, it's huge. No one knows what's going to happen. It's not going to be a run-of-the-mill debate, we know that, and so I think that's going to have a huge impact.
Blake: Mark, I want to sort of look at this kind of more broadly: You alluded to the time that we spent with Senator Kaine earlier this week, getting a perspective on what the Democrats' message is. I think he's able to, or from my perspective, tell me if you agree, I thought he was really able to sort of synthesize what he thought the election was about, the choice that they're trying to force in the context of this debate.
Blake: Right? It's, every campaign wants the election to be about whatever they want it to be about, and that's the argument. We're starting to see from Trump, and Howard alluded to this in his earlier comments, we're starting to see more substance from Trump. There was a Commander-in-Chief Forum the other night on CNN. I mean, what do you make about where these campaigns are, message-wise? Does it matter? Are we, is the electorate interested in message, or is this a personality contest to the finish? Where's this, the voter focusing his or her attention?
Mark: Well, 2 things, please. Yeah. I disagree with Howard that we are seeing a more disciplined Trump campaign. I disagree that he is presenting more substance than before. I do think he is talking more substantively, but on any given day, he's contradicting what he said the day before. I defy you to tell me what his policy on immigration is. Therefore, number 2, Blake, if the voters are looking for policy positions, and a policy division, between these 2 candidates, I don't think he's helping himself, because I don't think anybody knows where he is on much of this, but I don't think that's what the remaining voters are looking for. Again, you got to remember that a lot of the country is locked down, a lot of the states are locked down, they're not going to change. A lot of the voters are locked down. Donald Trump is going to get 40% no matter what happens from here to there. Hillary Clinton is going to get 40% no matter what happens from here to there. 10% are going elsewhere, so this is all about 10% of the people, and 10% in 10 states.
Howard: Right. That's what I was going to say. Right.
Mark: You can ... I try to quantify this. There's something like 2 to 4 million people who are going to pick the president. That's how this is going to work. What are they looking for? I think they are looking for credibility. I think each of these candidates has his or her challenges on that issue of credibility.
Howard: That's the understatement of the century.
Mark: I think one more than the other, but I don't think this is going to turn on Donald Trump's immigration policy, I don't think this is going to turn on Hillary Clinton's infrastructure policy.
Howard: I totally disagree. Totally disagree. This is a security election, and I don't mean physical, just physical security. This is a economic security and national security election. That's what this is about, and who, which candidate leaves people feeling more secure about their economic future and the national security of this country, that is what this election comes down to, in my opinion.
Mark: That is-
Howard: That's policy.
Mark: I'm not ... Okay. I'm happy for you to totally disagree with everything I say, I'm not trying to find a common ground; but when I say credibility, what I mean by that is, those 2 to 4 million people are going to look at this man and this woman and they're going to say, either, "I'm sitting this out altogether, by the way," and if they sit it out, that's better for her than him, although it does depend who they are and where they are, but they're either going to say that; or they're going to [say 00:13:56], "Okay, I trust that guy or this woman to keep me safe," [and 00:14:01]-
Howard: Is that a long-winded way of saying I was right?
Mark: No ...
Howard: All right, but-
Mark: ... but that's all policy. Once again, you're wrong but not far, not far off.
Blake: Well, but it does take us to the dynamic of this race. Trump performs better on national security issues. He does better among military voters, which is not inconsistent. We see that among Republican candidates. He's got a 19-point advantage among military voters. Romney had a 20-point advantage. Then we've got a contrast on economic issues, but credibility, to Mark's point, and I think there's certainly some overlap in what you guys are talking about, but I'm certainly not going to referee whether or not you agree, it is this notion of trust. This is a challenge for the Clinton campaign, Howard. I mean, this is where she really hasn't been able to move the needle, and the email situation continues to be top of mind. I mean, you said earlier, that's what people are interested in hearing about from her. Which really narrows the dialogue. She struggled a little bit, I think, on CNN the other night, dealing with this; but I want to get both your reactions just to sort of the state of the email world and how she's, what's she going to do for the next 60 days to get to the finish line.
Howard: Well, I think if, first of all, if you look back at our calls from the earlier part of the year ... I may have been wrong about her being indicted, but I was right about the fact that it was going to come down to the emails that they deleted and the foundation, and not so much the classified information question. I mean, look, it's misstep after misstep after misstep, and frankly I don't understand it. This is not that hard. I've been in government, I've been in multiple agencies, I've done it at a high level: It's not that hard to be smart about how you do these things. It's just not, and it is befuddling to me, and obviously the electorate, how time after time after time, this woman manages ...
Who's obviously very smart, very capable, a very good lawyer, which I think is frankly, even though we're sitting in a room of lawyers, part of the problem, but ... She continues to shoot herself in the foot and to conduct herself like she can lawyer her way out of everything. That's not acceptable. That's not what the American public wants, and I just don't get it.
Mark: Well, I sort of agree, but not too much. I agree with Bernie Sanders that nobody gives a damn about these emails. However, the emails are providing the occasion for her to demonstrate her personality and her style, and all of that is not helping. That's where I do agree with what Howard said. This woman has been demonized for 30 years by the vast right-wing conspiracy, and that's the backstory of where she finds herself, but she isn't helping herself. I do agree very much with what Howard is saying there, and she isn't helping herself not because of the misjudgment on the specific email issues, which she has conceded repeatedly and apologized for. She isn't helping herself because she isn't credible when she talks about it. I keep coming back to that word. He isn't credible when he talks about anything, in my view, but she isn't credible when she talks about this, and ... That taps into the 30-year question about who she is, and what she is all about. Those 2 to 4 million people in 8 to 10 states are wrestling with that, clearly.
Howard: You know what? If you know there's a vast right-wing conspiracy working against you, you can form your behavior so as not to allow the vast right-wing conspiracy to get at you.
Mark: Would have been a good idea. We can agree on that. Would have been a good idea, but where we are, which is discouraging-
Howard: It's not that hard.
Mark: Agreed. Agreed, but where we are, which is discouraging as a citizen, is that the other guy continues to be himself also. The problem we've got is that they are each being who they are, and that neither of them is who the country actually wants. He keeps being who he is, this is where I very much disagree about any discipline there. At the Commander-in-Chief Forum, where yes, she did not present a credible answer to a question about her emails. That, I don't get why she can't, but she didn't, and he sat there ...
Howard: Because, I'm sorry-
Mark: ... and doubled and tripled down on his bromance with Vladimir Putin.
Howard: That was absurd.
Mark: They are, each being who they are, and if neither is anyone different between now and November 8, this is going to be a mess.
Howard: Mark, the reason she can't answer the questions on her emails is because every day, something new comes out about her emails. It's not that she can't answer a question. It's that she did things she shouldn't have done.
Blake: Well, let's ...
Howard: Let me say one other thing. I mean, you know what? She is obviously, obviously, among these 2 people, more qualified to be the President of the United States, okay, but she has let the country down. She's let the country down, in my opinion, because look at the ... She should be crushing this guy, and she's not, and she's not because of her own personal conduct, her own personal decision making, and the decision making of the people around her. From that point of view, I mean, it's almost, it's pouring salt on the wounds, because she's arguably the one that's put the country in the position of him potentially being the next President of the United States.
Blake: Well, let's come back to the sort of challenges of Trump in contrast to that, Mark. I mean, you did talk about it, this sort of affection for Putin that Trump is doubling down on today, and the sort of contradictory behavior that he demonstrates, he is today more unpopular than she is. Although that gap is narrowing, to Howard's point. Right now, it certainly seems that Hillary's best asset is still Trump.
Mark: Hillary's best asset is still Trump, and what I believe is going on out there is something along these lines. Trump is who he is. Trump is where he is. Trump is not, despite his outreach to the African American community, and whatever other faux initiatives he has undertaken, he is not persuading anybody, and he is not moving any voters to his column. He is where he is. He is 40, 41, 42%. He's never been higher. He's not going to be higher. She has been up, and she has been down, and what all of this noise in the system is doing is moving her numbers. Post-convention, her numbers go up, and foundation, emails, on and on, and her numbers come down. The challenge for her is to move to the higher end of her potential, instead of the lower end, because the lower end is down at the upper end of his potential ...
Blake: ... but that, it's an interesting point that you made earlier, and I want to come back to it, which is, will the ground game actually matter in this race. Is this a Twitter election, where Trump is prolific? Or is this an electioneering election, in the sense of that the mechanics, the data, the targeting, the field plan, the number of volunteers, the organizers, are what gets you that 1 to 2 points, you've said that before, Mark, and thus tilt a tie in your favor? We're seeing, in Pennsylvania, Hillary's organization is extraordinary. It is bigger than anything [president 00:23:59] ever put on the field; in Pennsylvania there were a couple of really interesting stories for people on the phone about her, and Howard, you're very, very interested in the relationship between data and election outcomes, and there have been a couple interesting stories about her data usage and how that has influenced their resource allocation. It gets us into the science of this. Trump's doing none of that. I want to come back to it, Mark. You asked the question, and now I'd like to get your thoughts. I mean, is it going to matter?
Mark: I think it's going to matter. I do believe it's going to matter, because I believe that her challenge is to get people who, if they had to vote, would go her way to the polls, because they don't have to vote. If they sit home and don't show up for her, that's a problem. I think she's going to get them to the polls, and what I think it is, to come back to something that Howard said, and we're working at the margins here. This is a margin election. This is close, and this is a margin election here. Trump, I believe, is under-polled, and I do think that Bradley effect, as people in the polling space call it, is actually happening. Take Pennsylvania, for example. I think Trump is probably under-polled a point or 2 in Pennsylvania. I think her ground game in Pennsylvania is worth 2 or 3 points. It is the correction and then some to this under-polling. Yeah, I think it's going to matter, and I think it could, in some of these places, make a difference. Not in Pennsylvania, by the way.
She's actually going to win Pennsylvania, apart from all of these 2 point here or 2 point there, but boy, oh boy, could it matter in some places.
Blake: Well, and Howard, to that point, I mean, Pennsylvania looking more and more like it's going to fall in Hillary's column pretty much ensures that Trump's got to run the table in all the states that we've talked about. Without an [organization 00:26:28] in which the RNC will, of course, dispute and will suggest that they have an organization, and it's going to inure to Trump's benefit, so on and so forth, but ... Without a serious organization, which we know he doesn't have in Pennsylvania, we know the RNC doesn't really have in Pennsylvania, at this point, what does Trump do? I mean, does he ... He was on Twitter this morning blasting CNN. That seems to be his MO, is just to take to social media and just get after it a little bit.
They seem to be, to Mark's question, which is really fascinating to me, turning this notion of, or turning their back, really, to this notion of the relationship between science and outcomes in the context of elections, and just sort of throwing it to passion, and throwing it to, "I'm going to stir up more people, and they're going to show up, because I've persuaded them," to Mark's point, and, "All I have to do is tell them where to go vote, and they'll go vote." Do you think there's reality based in that theory?
Howard: Look, I think the ground game absolutely matters, and ... Look, I think there's a lot left to happen in the next 59 days, and yeah, he says some crazy stuff, but again, people want to hear what he's going to say. Whatever it is. In between, I think he's crazy like a fox: In between all the crazy stuff, he says some things that he knows people actually want to hear. I think the debate, the debates, are going to be really interesting. The first debate is obviously pivotal. If he doesn't win that, he's done ...
Howard: ... but I think he will, and I think he will, partially, by taking her from the left.
Mark: He will not win any of the debates in the sense of a debate team challenging a debate team under debate rules.
Howard: Yeah, Mark, this isn't high school.
Mark: He ... That's what I want to say. The problem for her is that the bar is so low for him. All he has to do is not fall off the stage. He went to Mexico and he didn't fall off the stage. He declared it a great triumph. I think it didn't move the needle, but I was surprised he didn't fall off the stage. I don't think he's going to fall off the stage here either. I agree with you that the first debate is going to go better for him than for her. Because they are being judged by different standards.
Howard: Well, they are being judged by different standards. They have different things to answer for, but I think we're going to see him come at her from the left on the big banks; I think we're going to see him come at her from the left on war; I think ...
Howard: ... yes, he wants to build a strong military, but woven into his message, this whole Iraq thing, whether he's practicing revisionist history or not.
Blake: A little bit, I think.
Howard: He knows what people out in the country want to hear, and he's going to speak to those things.
Mark: Her challenge at these debates is twofold. She is being held to a higher standard. Life's unfair, I'm not being petulant about that, I'm being descriptive. She is being held to a higher standard. Secondly, he is going to make things up. It is a certainty.
Howard: He makes things up every time he talks.
Mark: How she handles him when he's making things up is a real challenge. The whole thing ...
Mark: ... is asymmetrical, as they say, and by the way, there's an opportunity ... I'm not predicting it, but if she can somehow unlock that riddle of what you do with the guy when he just makes things up, nobody did in the Republican primaries.
Male: I was going to say, it's ...
Mark: The media hasn't. Matt Lauer didn't the other night, but if somehow she can unlock that, that's how she can actually win the debate politically, not just on points.
Howard: I think that what she has to do to win the debate is get under his skin. She's got, you can bet your bottom dollar that they have a team of psychologists figuring out how to get at him, how to get him to perform in an unhinged way ...
Mark: Well, she's taking ...
Howard: ... so the ... That's her strategy.
Mark: ... a lesson from your friend, Elizabeth Warren, who ironically is sitting in our law offices in Philadelphia ...
Howard: No comment.
Mark: ... at this very moment, because Pocahontas gets under his skin.
Blake: Well, the first debate-
Mark: Only Hillary can do a Pocahontas. I think he can come unhinged on national television.
Blake: Well, the first debate is September 26. It's going to be in New York at Hofstra University. It's going to be moderated by Lester Holt. There was a lot of talk about, and this is something I'm always interested in. It may not be interesting to either one of you and you can tell me, but moderators of these debates fascinate me, and-
Mark: Because your life's in the [business 00:32:18].
Blake: Yeah, yeah, that's right. Moderators fascinate me. We saw a lot of criticism leveled at Matt Lauer based on his performance, and I'm not ... Be that as it may, there's a lot of politicking around. I was on television yesterday, sort of trying to deal with whether that made any sense. Set that aside, the first debate moderator, and going back to Lester Holt, has, Mark, to your point, a really interesting job, because it is certainly the responsibility of Hillary Clinton to call Donald Trump to task when it's appropriate, and vice versa, but it's also the moderator's responsibility to examine what these candidates say, and that presents a dynamic ... Right now, we're just talking about how Hillary and Trump are going to manage each other.
Mark: It's not, to quote Howard about Hillary and explaining herself, it's not that hard. It's Gwen Ifill, and Governor Romney, and President Obama, and Romney's saying, "You didn't call it a terrorist attack." The president's saying, "Yes, I did," and the moderator's saying, "Yes, he did. Yes, he did." That's the standard here, and I'm rooting for Lester to reach it, because if he gets over that bar, the moderator's going to do more talking than either of them.
Blake: Yeah. Right.
Howard: That's right.
Mark: Since everything the other guy is going to say is going to be suspect.
Blake: Yeah. Yeah, well, I ... Any other thoughts, just because we're, we'll certainly be back in advance of the first debate, but I think as we're trying to think about where and how this election gets interesting. Because certainly Trump, to both of your points, I mean, is consistently covered, and is all talk all the time, so we hear from him a lot. To people who've made up their mind, they've made up their mind. The swing voters, it really does seem to me that the opportunity to determine who is more credible, who has, to both of your points, about what you think voters are looking for when ... Really comes in that first debate. Are we really going to see President Donald Trump on that stage?
Mark: I want to leave the last word for Howard, but you ask anything else, I want to say one other thing. It is going to be fascinating, to me at least, this is like you say, I don't know if anybody else is interested. I am really interested, as a child of the Cold War here, I am really interested in how this Russia thing breaks, because you are going to have a data dump in October, and it's going to be bad for Hillary, and Trump is going to ...
Blake: This is WikiLeaks. This is what-
Mark: ... use it to pound her, and if I were Secretary Clinton or President Obama, I would stand up there and say, "We're really going to let Russia pick the next president," but we'll see. We'll see where this whole Putin WikiLeaks DNC hack data dump thing goes. It could go either way.
Howard: I have 3 thoughts, picking up on that. First, the October surprise, which has become cliché, maybe that's it. I am concerned about something much more serious, whether it's Russia, or Iran, or a combination of the 2, or someone altogether different, puts not Hillary, but the current President of the United States to the test.
Blake: When we saw some ... I mean, North Korea.
Howard: Right. Right. That is scary, and it, I think, is very much out there as a possibility. I guess my second thought is not about the presidential election, but about the United States Senate. The Republicans are, I think, running a much stronger race collectively where they're vulnerable than people expected. You mentioned Senator Portman before.
Blake: Marco Rubio jumping into the Florida Senate race, [maybe 00:36:50].
Howard: Marco Rubio. Things are, I think, a lot closer than people expected them to be in some of those races, and the Republicans have raised a pretty astounding amount of money to support those campaigns. That's very, very important in terms of what Washington looks like in the future.
Mark: I'll bet you dinner they both go the same way. The Senate and the White House are going the same way, but [fair enough we'll 00:37:17].
Blake: Yeah, I mean ... Yeah, we'll come back.
Mark: That's for another time.
Blake: I'm going to let you finish. Yeah, right, right, yeah.
Mark: Well, now you've got to buy me dinner, [because that's 00:37:23]-
Howard: [Okay, fine, 00:37:23] I'll buy you dinner. Hillary's got to win "the devil you know" vote. That's what this comes down to. They both have credibility problems, as you've said, Mark. They both seriously leave something to be desired. She has got to convince the public that they're better off with the devil they know. That's what it comes down to, and that's probably what's going to happen, and she's probably going to be the next President of the United States, but I think there will be days, there will be calls between now and November 8th where we're talking about the possibility, even more significant possibility, that he's going to be elected the next president.
Blake: Yeah. Assuming he can answer the most important question of the day, which is, what is Aleppo? With that, guys, it's fun as always. It's great to be back. We'll be here weeks in and weeks out, talking about this race, and every day is a new day. We have said that many times on these calls. Tomorrow, everything we've said today could simply be, dare I say, "irrelevant," because that's not right, but it could certainly ... Your thinking and your analysis could shift, so I'm looking forward to being back with you next week, I think, for everybody who's joining us live. We send out the full schedule of our calls, so hopefully you'll make the time to join us. As always, comments, questions, are welcome. You can shoot that to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we look forward to talking again. Howard, Mark, fun as always. Great to be back with you. I hope you had wonderful summers, and we've got less than 60 days to Election Day, so I look forward to spending it with you.
Howard: Game on. Thanks, Blake.
Blake: All right, thanks, everybody.
Mark: Thank you.
Blake: Thank you.