WASHINGTON — Donald Trump enters the final televised debate tonight facing the monumental task of turning around this presidential race, confonting the forces of history, electoral mathematics and his deep personal unpopularity.
Nobody in the era of modern opinion polling has recovered to win the presidency when trailing by such margins at this late stage in the race, with the election in less than three weeks and advance voting already underway.
Trump tells his supporters to ignore it.
“You can”t believe anything you see. I don”t even believe the polls,” Trump told a rally on the eve of his third and final debate against Hillary Clinton.
“(The media) don”t want to show you the good. If they take five polls of the same group, they will always show the bad one.”
There is no shortage of so-called bad ones. Of the last 25 national head-to-head polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics, Trump led just one. Clinton”s margin of victory had grown to an average of about seven percentage points.
Tonight is likely his final campaign opportunity to speak to a prime-time audience of this size.
The first two debates didn”t help.
Every scientific survey conducted afterward suggested viewers felt he lost. He bragged about not paying taxes, allowed Clinton to draw him into a multi-day feud with a former Miss Universe and threatened to jail his rival — all in front of invited guests that included several women known for having accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault.
While ardent Trump fans profess their support on unscientific online surveys, more credible polls show there is resistance to his candidacy from one important group of Americans: suburban women.
One poll from Fox News this week shows him losing suburban women by a whopping 24-per-cent gap, causing him to trail significantly in the suburbs — which Mitt Romney won.
People close to Trump signalled Wednesday how he might try expanding his appeal. In cable-news interviews, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and a Republican party spokesman said he”d hammer home the message of change.
It”s consistent with his statements of recent days — he”s proposed ethics reforms like term limits for lawmakers, suggested new restrictions for lobbyists, criticized Clinton cronyism and unveiled as his new rallying cry the slogan, “Drain the swamp.”
“This is a change election,” Republican official Sean Spicer told Fox News.
“And tonight you”re going to continue to see the contrast: that if you like the status quo, if you like the way things are going, you vote for the people who”ve been in Washington forever and brag about how many offices they”ve held… Donald Trump”s gotta make the closing argument, “If you”re ready for change, I”m your guy.””
There are two sizeable obstacles on that path.
Every poll suggests the self-styled change agent is less popular than the current president. Second, the Fox survey suggests that when respondents are asked who”ll deliver the best change, he”s three per cent behind Clinton.
The other disheartening news for Trump is that third debates tend not to matter much. Historically they have drawn the smallest audiences, and made the tiniest impact on voting intentions.
Fivethirtyeight.com compared polls before and after debates and found the numbers usually shifted less than one percentage point following the third debate, with the rare exception of 1992 when third-party spoiler Ross Perot had a big impact.
Trump needs more than a one-point bounce.
Clinton leads in every major swing state except Ohio. She also leads in less-friendly North Carolina, and is competitive in places like Georgia and Arizona — which has only voted Democrat only once since 1952.
The Democrats appear so confident of beating Trump that they”ve shifted their message. They”re now targeting down-ballot Republicans, blaming lesser-known lawmakers for enabling Trump”s improbable rise.
On a related note, Trump has reportedly invited, as guests to the last debate, Barack Obama”s African half-brother, and relatives of victims of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.