The 2016 primaries were vulgar, dramatic, belligerent affairs that blared steadily across the scrolling bars of every news network and intruded endlessly on every news site and Facebook wall. Trump was Trump, Clinton couldn’t close out Sanders, and Cruz, amidst the Titanic-tilt of the GOP, briefly assumed the role of savior for a party that half-loathed him. For all the endless drama and arguments over delegate math and nicknames, there was a sense that this was just the precursor to the main act. If you think this is crazy, people said in bars, wait until the general election.
To be sure, the election is still blaring and dominating the media landscape as one would expect. And to be surer, there has been no shortage of controversy, dismay, and a passing moment to briefly redeem the country. But by and large, the drama of the primaries hasn’t quite been followed, with the exception of a few moments around the convention that merited the hype. After the primary there was endless debate about when Trump would pivot and yield to the obvious fact that he was no longer performing in front of the same older, overwhelmingly-white, strongly conservative audience. But Trump didn’t move. He dithered on establishing serious policy positions, resisted moderation and teleprompters, and saw no particular urgency to fundraise or hire staff. In short, he did little to actually establish a campaign. He did, however, bumble into an endless succession of controversies and found himself unable to distract from them with another evisceration of Jeb Bush. For now Trump looks to be a Hindenberg that never took off but is still counting down to the final implosion.
On the Democratic side, Clinton has run a competent, unspectacular campaign that has quietly hit its marks as Trump has angrily loped along. For a running mate, she made a smart but uninteresting pick with a well-regarded swing state senator. The ads her campaign has been running for months now often relied only on Trump’s own words rather than morning-in-America shots of Clinton attempting inspiration in fruited plains. As the campaign calendar brings us to the final turn, Clinton and her team have been quietly effective with full knowledge that they had little need to engage a candidate so intent on defeating himself.
The result of this, at least so far, has been a campaign that looks more like 2008 than 2012. In 2008 there was the ceaseless drama of Obama and Clinton’s titanic battle and the less-noticed but still impressive resuscitation of John McCain’s campaign from near-bankruptcy to victory. In the general election, however, there was little to encourage McCain and his team aside from an occasional outlier poll that showed them within “striking distance.” McCain’s election prospects were such that by late-August, his team swung for the fences in nominating an untested governor from Alaska who dazzled at the convention but has generally baffled and spoken in tongues ever since. The outcome of the election was largely a forgone conclusion as Obama coasted to victory.
In 2012 the Republican primary had some moments of drama as Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all took turns at the lead, but Mitt Romney’s slow and steady march ultimately carried him to victory, with unfortunate nods to self-deportation and severe conservatism along the way.
With an interesting but typical primary campaign in the rearview mirror, the real drama in 2012 took place in the election. Romney was never a natural candidate, but with Paul Ryan on the ticket and a governorship on his resume, he could at least credibly carry the Republican banner. For all his own missteps and stilted campaigning, Romney got to the finish line with flurry of late polls that showed him ahead or even with Obama nationally and within actual striking distance in several swing states. Although the polling in general painted a less hopeful picture for Romeney and many prognosticators pointed out as much, too optimistic conservatives who were convinced that a 2010-style wave of enthusiasm was lurking beneath the surge, Romney had a shot at victory. In the end Obama won comfortably, but it had at least been a contest.
Trump seems to be going the route of John McCain, only he’s doing so without any of the grace, experience, or valor that occasionally shines through McCain’s curmudgeonly veneer. In some sense this isn’t surprising. Although many people projected that Trump’s ascendance through the primaries would continue in the general election, he has yet to demonstrate that he’s ready for this stage. His belligerence and ineptitude have not been well-received nor hidden under the brightest glare in American politics.
It goes without saying that the election isn’t over before Labor Day, and Clinton’s political missteps and image problems makes any polling lead feel as if it’s built on sand. At the end of the day, however, Trump is not a politician, but a simple con artist in the midst of a desperate but impossible attempt to back up his cheap words and bluster. Unfortunately for him, it’s hard to pull a con with the whole world watching.