Judging by the people waiting in line to vote at Savannah’s Civic Center on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton has nothing to worry about. About half of the 50 voters patiently waiting their turn were African Americans, most of whom, presumably, are voting for Clinton. Of the four who agreed to participate in my private poll, three said they supported the Democratic candidate. So it’s in the bag, no?
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Most Savannah Jews will also vote for Clinton, though it’s unclear how emphatic that support will be, according to the engaging Reform Rabbi Richard Haas who presides over the exquisite Mickve Israel synagogue, America’s third oldest, in the town’s historic section. Jewish southerners tend to be more conservative than their northeastern co-religionists, he believes, and this year people are more reluctant than ever to divulge their preferences, so who knows. The sense that Georgia might be a swing state for the first time since 1996 - which has probably dissipated in recent days - has galvanized early voting, Haas believes. One of the guides at the museum inside the synagogue tells me she waited for over an hour to vote. And whom did you vote for, I ask, and she looks at me as if I was an idiot.
Savannah and its environs, in any case, are unrepresentative of Georgia as a whole. Voters of Chatham County, that includes Savannah, gave 55% of their votes to Barack Obama in 2012, but Mitt Romney ultimately won the state by seven points. In early September the polls showed a virtual dead heat between Clinton and Donald Trump in Georgia and the Democrats sent their heavy guns to make a play for the state, but Trump now leads by four points, and the Democrats are no longer coming. They are investing in Florida, in Arizona and mainly in North Carolina, which could give them the jackpot. President Obama will hold a rally on Wednesday at Chapel Hill in North Carolina to galvanize local activists and volunteers.
The Democrats are trying to keep cool in the face of a wave of hysteria that swept Clinton supporters throughout the world on Tuesday morning, following the publication of a Washington Post/ABC poll that gave Trump a one point lead. The poll undoubtedly reflects the general trends, though even Trump-supporter Newt Gingrich ridiculed its wild fluctuations from a 12 point Clinton lead less than ten days ago to a one point deficit today. In the annals of presidential politics, no candidate has ever come close to falling so much so fast.
The media, in Israel as well as the U.S., tends to highlight news-making polls, like the Washington Post/ABC tracker, in accordance with the dog bites man principle of journalism. They hardly report the polls that confirm the status quo, such as the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published on Monday night that gave Clinton a solid seven-point lead. By the same token, the media seems to obsess over Clinton way more that it does over Trump. Perhaps the GOP candidate was right when he said he could walk down Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, because the media might only yawn. After all, it’s Trump, what else is new. But the email caper, which may or may not hold more than a drop of water, has occupied the main headlines for days on end.
In any case, Clinton is still in better shape than the oy-oy-oy fear gripping her voters. In some battleground states, including critical Pennsylvania, some polls show her situation improving. And of the battleground states listed as toss-ups on Real Clear Politics - including Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado, or of Iowa and Nevada together - Clinton needs to win only one to become President. Trump, despite his improving situation, has to sweep them all, no ifs or buts, while making sure he doesn’t lose any of the states he already holds.
The question is if and when Clinton’s nosedive will end. In the past two weeks she’s gone down from an average seven point advantage on Real Clear Politics to a little more than two per cent today, and obviously if her downward trend continues then even states now considered safe will slip from her grasp. Early voting patterns are portrayed as encouraging for Clinton, though they seem all over the place. Hispanics seem to be voting early in greater numbers than in 2012, which is good for Clinton, but African Americans are voting less, which is bad, and young people aren’t even bothering to get out of bed, which is terrible. Of the four dozen people waiting in line in Savannah, only one seemed under 30. She wouldn’t divulge whom she was voting for, but her hipster eyeglasses and the copy of The New York Times peeking for her handbag probably gave her away.
It’s unclear how much the latest email/FBI flap has added to Clinton’s woes. The Democrats claim not much, but they could be spinning. Clinton and her advisers seemed to be finally refocusing their attacks on Trump rather than on FBI Director James Comey; in Florida on Tuesday, Clinton didn’t even mention the FBI, focusing instead on Trump’s misogyny. Playing the responsible adult, President Obama seemed to be telling Democrats to lay off Comey in his White House statement on Monday that said the President is confident in Comey’s integrity and does not believe the FBI Director was trying to influence the elections. Nonetheless, Obama refrained from backing Comey’s letter to Congress on Friday about the “pertinent” emails purportedly found on Anthony Weiner’s computer. On that, White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest said, Comey will have to fend for himself.
The storm unleashed by Comey will undoubtedly harm the image of the FBI, but could also inflict lasting damage on American politics. If Trump wins, Democrats will be forever convinced that Comey played a critical role in his victory: their trauma from the very fact that Trump is President will be augmented by a sense that his win was illegitimate. And if Trump loses and Clinton wins, the FBI allegations will only fuel his claim that the elections were rigged and that Clinton should be sitting in jail rather than the White House. The paralysis that gripped Washington because of the standoff between Obama and Congress might seem like paradise compared to the governing hell that might prevail in the future.
A close race between Trump and Clinton will complicate things even further, especially if she wins. Trump might decide to contest the results in states in which Clinton does not win by a clear margin, a process that could herald an extended period of instability and increasing polarization. The grueling Florida recount battle of 2000 could also look, in retrospect, like a walk in the park.
Of course it makes a big difference who the winner is. If it’s Clinton, America will be led by its first ever women president who critics describe as corrupt but who nonetheless is not lacking in experience. If Trump wins it will have an unguided missile in the White House, a President who experts view as an impulsive bully. But whether it’s Clinton or Trump, no one is harboring any illusions that things will get batter after all the votes are counted. Most probably, they’ll get much worse.