I hate to be an alarmist, but Donald Trump could be on course to be elected president of the United States – and the decisive moment may well come on Monday night. That’s when he faces Hillary Clinton in what is expected to be one of the most watched events in television history. The TV debates are perhaps the last chance for her to persuade the American people that this man is unqualified for, and unworthy of, the presidency and poses a genuine threat to the republic.
If that sounds like panic, then I’m not the only one. Sweaty-palmed nausea has become a leading symptom among those who tremble at the prospect of a Trump presidency. The latest Slate Political Gabfest podcast is called The Time to Panic Edition. Number cruncher Nate Silver, who gives Trump a 40% probability of winning, triggered another round of liberal angst this week when he tweeted that he had “Never seen otherwise smart people in so much denial about something as they are about Trump’s chances. Same mistake as primaries, Brexit.”
The source of the alarm is not so much the national polls, where Clinton is a few points ahead, but surveys from those battleground states where the presidency will be decided. In the last week, polls have put Trump in front in Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina and, most neuralgic of all, Florida.
So low are expectations for his performance on Monday – where it is assumed that his opponent, a seasoned debater, will wipe the floor with him – that if Trump manages to speak in vaguely coherent sentences and not deliver a misogynist insult to Clinton’s face, his advocates will declare that he looked “presidential” and anoint him the winner. If he can somehow persuade wavering voters that he is not so ridiculous as to merit automatic disqualification, he will have cleared a crucial hurdle.
And for all her experience, Clinton heads towards this first, and therefore most important, debate facing some serious obstacles. She’s been advised that she mustn’t interrupt too much or talk over Trump: apparently voters react badly to seeing a woman act that way.