For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
One week after the end of the Democratic and Republican Conventions, the first significant polls were released on the state of the presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As expected, Clinton received a traditional bump coming out of the convention in Philadelphia, just as Trump enjoyed and then lost a bump after his convention in Cleveland.
Both campaigns struggled in the first serious week of the presidential race to secure sure footing, but Trump clearly had the worst of it.
Much as with the political conventions where each day can be won or lost, presidential campaigns are judged by whether a week is a setback or an advance, with the acute understanding that time is always critical and momentum a precious commodity.
It began with a relentless media assault on Trump over his response to the speech at the Democratic Convention by Khzir Khan, father of Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim U.S. Army officer killed in Afghanistan in 2004. The political tangle with a gold-star family effectively derailed any traction that might have been achieved in focusing on the grieving families of those killed in Benghazi, Libya, under Clinton’s watch as Secretary of State in 2012. According to the Media Research Center, the media reported on Khan far more than Benghazi, just as reporting centered on Trump over the revelation that the Obama Administration had sent $400 million to Iran as part of the negotiations with the Tehran regime. And then there was the bizarre media obsession of whether Trump had expelled a crying baby from a press conference.
The added effect of this week’s coverage was to give Hillary Clinton a free media pass from her own political problems. As Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
And while Mr. Trump was doing this, Mrs. Clinton was again lying about her emails, reminding us there’s crazy there, too. She insisted to Chris Wallace that FBI director James Comey endorsed her sincerity and veracity. No he didn’t, and everyone knows he didn’t. She’d have spent the past week defending her claims if it weren’t for Mr. Trump’s tireless attempts to kill Mr. Trump.
The media also began the two-step dance of focusing on Trump’s missteps and then harping on the subsequent polls. Media analyst Howard Kurtz writes about this at Fox News:
When a candidate says or does something damaging, journalists are quick to check the next polls. If there’s not much change, we say it hasn’t hurt him. If he takes a hit in the numbers, we often go into hair-on-fire mode. There are two problems with this approach. One, polls are ephemeral. They blip up and down. A convention bounce soon fades. Trump was nowhere in the polls when he launched his campaign and somehow managed to win the Republican nomination. So those who are writing his political obituary are being short-sighted. Second, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the hammering that Trump has taken over the last week—whether it’s deserved or not—it would be shocking if he wasn’t dropping in the polls.
Kurtz is right. As he documents, the latest Fox News poll shows Clinton leading Trump by 49% to 39%. Meanwhile, other polls are all over the map: an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Clinton with a 9-point lead, while a McClatchy poll has her ahead by 15 points. Kurtz also points out that Reuters shows her with a 4-point lead, and an L.A. Times poll has her in the lead by only 1 point. As Kurtz stresses, “I don’t doubt that Hillary has a significant lead, but the picture is a bit muddled.”
Make note of the fact that the realclearpolitics.com average gives Clinton a six point advantage, 47%-40%. Even after a week of political problems, Trump is still hanging in there, and Clinton remains unable to break the 50% threshold that incumbents typically need (she has established herself as the institutional candidate of continuity with the last eight years). This should remain the source of concern to her campaign, especially as it is still only the first week of August.
Ignored in all of this were the significant stories surrounding the Republican and Democrat running mates.
Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s taciturn choice for VP, proved adroit on the stump while showing a willingness to disagree publicly on matters of principle with the man who chose him. While some tried to deride him for being little more than the Trump “cleanup crew”, Pence called the late Capt. Humayun Khan “an American hero” and added that the gold-star Khan family should be “cherished by every American.” Likewise, where Trump had said he was not ready to endorse the re-election of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Pence enthusiastically supported his old friend and House colleague. “I believe,” Pence said, “we need Paul Ryan in leadership in the Congress of the United States to rebuild our military, to strengthen our economy and to ensure that we have the kind of leadership in this country that will make America great again.”
As for Senator Tim Kaine, the Democrat VP candidate, his own effort to distance himself from Clinton’s extreme position on abortion only created new problems for the ticket thanks to his apparently shifting positions on the issue.
The 2016 Democratic platform calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment that prevents taxpayer funding for abortion. Clinton has stated publicly that she will do just that. Kaine’s actual position on the amendment seems difficult to pin down at this point with the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List noting five different positions in the last month alone.
All of this matters precisely because it is still August, and we have a long fall ahead of us. Kaine’s political maneuverings serve only to highlight the internal problems within the Democrat Party on the life issues at a time when Gallup has found that one in three Democrats are pro-life.
All presidential elections tend to fall prey to unimportant stories and distractions, including crying babies. At some point, voters start concentrating on what really matters. Should, hopefully, life emerge as one of those central issues, Tim Kaine and other Catholic pro-abortion politicians in both parties will have a lot more explaining to do.