GWEN IFILL: Who can you imagine as commander in chief, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? We’re searching for answers here in Colorado on a special edition of Washington Week.
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) We’re going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops.
MS. IFILL: Who do you trust?
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) We’re going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) He says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS, but the secret is he has no plan.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Hillary likes to play tough with Russia. Putin looks at her and he laughs, OK?
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) Not only did Trump mess up his first international engagement, he choked.
MS. IFILL: As we enter the dizzying final 60 days of the longest presidential campaign in history, the candidates are not waiting for their formal debates to begin the brawl.
INDIANA GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE (R): (From video.) Hillary Clinton is the most dishonest candidate for president of the United States since Richard Nixon.
SENATOR TIMOTHY KAINE (D-VA): (From video.) Even Richard Nixon produced his tax returns.
MS. IFILL: We look at the polls, the policy, and the politics with Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Molly Ball, national political correspondent for The Atlantic; Jackie Calmes, national correspondent for The New York Times; and Michael Scherer, Washington bureau chief for TIME Magazine.
ANNOUNCER: From Colorado College in Colorado Springs, this is a special edition of Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, from the campus of Colorado College, moderator Gwen Ifill. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: Hello. (Applause.) Thank you. Hello, Colorado Springs! Happy to be here.
For the last two presidential cycles, this state has gone blue for President Obama. The two cycles before that, Colorado went red for President George W. Bush. This year, Hillary Clinton appears to have the edge, for now. Welcome to the color purple, where we come to you from the bleeding red heart of the state, El Paso County, with its major megachurches and five military installations. No wonder, then, that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent the week courting veterans and talking national security. Along the way, they also managed to talk a little smack about each other.
MRS. CLINTON: (From video.) We have never been threatened as much by a single candidate running for president as we have been in this election.
MR. TRUMP: (From video.) Hillary Clinton was emailing about the drone program, among many other extremely sensitive matters. This is yet more evidence that Clinton is unfit to be your commander in chief.
MS. IFILL: Emails, Vladimir Putin, veterans, ground troops in Iraq. It seems like once we got past Labor Day, this campaign went into overdrive, didn’t it, Molly?
MOLLY BALL: Yeah. It’s actually been very refreshing to finally see the candidates contrasted with each other directly on the same stage, albeit not at the same time. I think we’re all now looking forward to the debates beginning in a couple weeks, when there will be even more engagement between the two candidates because it has seemed for so long that they were sort of campaigning in parallel worlds, on parallel tracks. And as a reporter, if you cover both of them, it can be sort of dizzying to go from one to the other. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: How did this become a commander-in-chief debate so quickly, Dan? Because even in years past, when we were engaged in multiple active wars, it doesn’t feel like that was the big discussion.
DAN BALZ: No, and I don’t know that in the end that national security will be the decisive factor. I mean, if you look at polling, jobs and the economy are still the most important issue. National security is second. So the economic issues will come to the fore at some point.
I think one of the reasons that the national security issue has become so important is that the basis of Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Donald Trump are that he is unfit to be president, unfit to be commander in chief – that he would be a threat to the country if he became president to deal with those international issues. And she is driving that. She’s trying to disqualify him. And that’s the best basis for her, she thinks, to go after him.
MS. IFILL: So when we talk about Russia, Michael, and we talk about these issues about whether he loves Vladimir Putin or not, that’s in some ways a metaphor for leadership questions.
MICHAEL SCHERER: It is. And it’s also remarkable what he’s been saying about Vladimir Putin. To, you know, think four, eight years ago that you would have the Republican nominee for president saying the Russian president is a more successful leader than the current president of the United States is just a remarkable statement that we wouldn’t – you would sort of stop the presses in a different cycle, but in this cycle we see it very differently.
I think, for Trump, he’s telegraphing that he identifies with and thinks our country would benefit a very different type of leadership style. I mean, his – it’s a much more nationalistic policy agenda and it’s a much more great man theory of the case – you know, that it takes great men to do this. Vladimir Putin is a man who has led by taking his shirt off and riding horses. And projecting this idea –
JACKIE CALMES: And killing journalists.
MS. IFILL: And killing journalists.
MR. SCHERER: And killing journalists.
MS. BALL: And opposition figures.
MS. IFILL: And opposition figures.
MR. SCHERER: Right, but by being a sort of father figure for his entire country. And I think when Trump talks about Putin, I think he’s broadcasting that.
MS. IFILL: Well, Jackie, what’s interesting to me, too, is once again Donald Trump barreled into this campaign and kind of blew up the Republican Party. No self-respecting Republican – Ronald Reagan comes to mind – would ever, ever in any abstract way have praised a Russian leader. So is that another sign of how different this campaign has become?
MS. CALMES: Different from – and you can go farther back than Reagan, I mean, since the Cold War, since World War II. You would never – you know, the Republicans were – seized the national security anti-communist mantle and they really never gave it up. This is the – you know, the only time – what we’re seeing today is – there’s been nothing like it since 1964 and Barry Goldwater. When Hillary Clinton makes an issue of who would – and it’s really sort of ironic when you think about it, that the – that the woman has the more plausible case to be the more credible commander in chief, given what her opponent has said himself and given the fact that, as in Barry Goldwater’s case but even more so, you have military figures – and not just military figures, but senior figures from past Republican administrations coming out and saying they cannot vote for him, they will vote for Hillary Clinton.
MS. IFILL: And yet – and yet, Dan, you had a big project in The Washington Post this week about what people believe in all 50 states. We read polls, we get dizzy, we don’t know which is true. But I think what is true after Labor Day is the race ever seems to be tightening ever so much.
MR. BALZ: I think it is tightened somewhat since the conventions. What happened after the convention was she got a bigger bounce out of her convention than Trump got from his, and that gave her what appeared to be an expanded lead. That’s begun to settle down, and I think we’re waiting really for the round of polls that we’ll get coming, you know, over the next week or so to give us a fuller sense of where we are after Labor Day. But we’ve seen a number of battleground states that are close. Our 50-state survey showed any number of states that seemed to be very close and competitive. But I think that that masks the other reality, and that is that still in the Electoral College competition she has an advantage. She has many more paths to 270 electoral votes than he does, and that hasn’t changed at this point.
MS. IFILL: Molly, everybody’s watching Pennsylvania. They’re watching Ohio. They’re watching – even in your poll, I think – in your survey, I think, Texas suddenly popped up out of nowhere as tightening, which I found amazing. But I wonder when you – we’re here in Colorado, which has been known as purple but really is very bluish this year. I wonder when you look at that you think to yourself, where should I go? As a national reporter, where is this story?
MS. BALL: Well, and I think you see some very clear patterns in the states that are and are not in play. I mean, in some sense it’s the same set of swing states that we always get. But there are some interesting wrinkles based on the unique characteristics, particularly of the Republican candidate this year. You see him running slightly stronger in these Rust Belt battlegrounds, in places like Ohio, not so much Pennsylvania. I think Trump really wanted to make a play for Pennsylvania, but Hillary has opened up a pretty wide lead there.
MS. IFILL: He wanted to make a play for Oregon, so I mean, you know – (laughter) –
MS. BALL: I heard him say he was going to campaign in California, but I haven’t seen him there recently. (Laughter.) But you know, you see him performing relatively less well in states like Colorado and Virginia. These are two very similar electorates. I’m from Colorado; I live in Virginia. Both of these are states where the voting population is heavily suburban and have – highly educated and doing pretty well economically. And Colorado especially is a – is a diverse and diversifying state with a large Hispanic population. In Virginia there’s a large Asian population. And so, you know, we’ve seen Trump not do well with all of those demographics – with highly educated voters, independents and even Republicans, he has done – he’s really underperforming Mitt Romney with those kind of groups – and with the diverse electorate. You know, I think there was a thought by the Trump campaign that they could make inroads in minority communities, and we’ve seen them start to do some of that outreach. We are not seeing said minority communities seem very open to that so far.
MS. IFILL: I would daresay he’s not actually appealing to minority communities, but to people who might be offended that he’s not appealing to minority communities; and that, when you got to a church and – to a black church at the age of 70 after having lived in New York your whole life and you’ve never been to one before, that seems, I don’t know – (laughter) – maybe not unusual for most people, but very unusual for a presidential candidate.
MR. SCHERER: You know, one of the interesting things we’ll watch over the next several weeks is whether we’ve moved beyond the persuasion part of this campaign. Most people kind of have ideas of what they think about these candidates right now, and really what it’s about is convincing the people who already are kind of leaning your direction to actually come out and vote. In a year where enthusiasm is slightly better for him than her, but pretty low – the electorate is not excited about this election, even if we’re kind of fascinated by it and mesmerized by it, but we’re not excited by the choices.
So you know, to your point, I think what he’s doing is talking to people who, you know, are Republicans, who are disposed to not vote for Hillary Clinton, and trying to convince them that, yeah, you know, I’m not a bad guy. And that bad guy thing, which Clinton has very successfully promoted and I think he’s successfully promoted at points during this campaign, is something he’s trying to get away from.
MS. IFILL: I had a conversation yesterday with a local Evangelical pastor who said, you know, a lot of my members aren’t for Trump. I am, but I keep telling them here’s your choice: Hillary Clinton. And that, the anti-Hillary Clinton meme which we saw play out at the Republican Convention, all of us, that to me seems to be the biggest threat to her.
MR. BALZ: It is the biggest threat to her, and in a sense it’s also the biggest threat to Donald Trump. I mean, there’s probably more negative voting going on in this election than we’ve seen in any past election. There are majorities, probably, of people who are for Hillary Clinton who are voting for her because they don’t want Donald Trump, and vice versa. And so some of these polls suggest that there is a relatively sizeable number of undecideds left, and yet when you –
MS. IFILL: Is that true?
MR. BALZ: Well, some of them suggest that. But I think the reality is there are a number of people who are conflicted, that they can’t quite say openly I’m really for A or B, and so they kind of leave open the idea. But I think, you know, that said, I think most people at this point probably know where they’re going to end up, and the – and the key is getting them out.
MS. IFILL: I asked – I asked the audience just before we went on the air how many undecideds there were, and it was a sprinkling of hands, but more than I expected.
MS. BALL: I definitely do notice, talking to voters on the ground, a lot of people who say that they’re undecided for exactly that reason, they’re conflicted. I think normally in an election year you would see a relatively small number of people who are undecided because most people always vote the same way. But those people tend to be people with relatively less information, people who don’t tune in until late. This year it’s the high-information voters who are undecided because they do feel so pulled between two choices that are relatively unappetizing. And I’ve – so I hear a lot of voters, especially Republican voters, saying they’re conflicted about how to vote, and a lot of interest in third-party candidates. I have heard a lot of voters saying that they want to know more about particularly Gary Johnson, but –
MS. IFILL: Which might be a high-water mark right here in Colorado, actually, the Gary Johnson –
MS. BALL: This is a state where multiple political experts have told me he could do well.
MS. IFILL: Right. Jackie, as we have watched campaigns over the years, we have seen the traditional way they play out. There are ads. There are debates. There are the ways which you break through. How do we know that any of that is cutting through this year?
MS. CALMES: I think it’s become increasingly hard to know, in part because of the internet and social media, and campaigns have completely been transformed from when we started. And you know, who is ever spending the most on TV and then what was going on the – generally the three main broadcast networks was what determined things. But now, you know, you can just target – and they do target – the people they want to reach with videos that we may never see. And you know, we’ve seen that people are now self-selecting their media that they consume by virtue of whatever – this is especially true on the right, far less true on the left – but –
MS. IFILL: But Molly has a piece on the cover – the cover of The Atlantic Magazine this week in which she makes the case that all of this microtargeting that everybody’s worked out, the big Obama victory that everybody – and the Bush victory, the Karl Rove fascination, the George Stephanopoulos, James Carville fascination, that all of that’s bunk now.
MS. BALL: Well, I mean, I think in a world where Jeb Bush can spend $130 million in the Republican primary and win four delegates, and Donald Trump can spend almost nothing and really not build a campaign organization at all – just a guy and his tweets and some rallies – and win the primary, I mean, that has to tell you something about what all this stuff – all this money is being spent on and whether it’s having any effect. Donald Trump has just started airing his first general election ads. As of a couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton was out-advertising him on television $52 million to zero. And to be clear, she is winning this race at this point, but we do still see a pretty close race. You know, here in Colorado, Hillary Clinton is opening field offices number 20 through 23 this weekend. Donald Trump, I believe, has six or seven, and most of those are run by the RNC and have been opened relatively recently.
MS. IFILL: Including one run by a 12-year-old –
MS. BALL: That’s right, the one in Jefferson County run by a 12-year-old.
MR. SCHERER: And his mother.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) And his mother.
MS. BALL: We have never seen a campaign organizationally so lopsided. It’s almost like a controlled experiment in how many votes you would get if you just didn’t run a campaign at all as a major-party nominee.
MR. SCHERER: I’m really – I’m really interested in sort of the after-action of this, because this question of TV advertising, clearly it didn’t work for Jeb Bush in the primary, but in the primary you’re going for a relatively small portion of the electorate. Not a lot of people turn out in Iowa. Not a lot of people turn out in New Hampshire to vote in any single party’s primary. And my suspicion is that a lot of the lead we saw this summer after the conventions and into September, where Clinton was really pulling ahead – you saw – like, there were polls coming out of North Carolina that showed her like eight or nine or 10 points up, which was just insane numbers – were reactions to what we know about TV ads in traditional cycles, which is if they’re unopposed they work. If they’re opposed – if you see, you know, the Republican ad and then the Democratic ad while watching the same show – they kind of cancel each other out. But if they’re unopposed, your thinking starts to change and you start to, you know, have different thoughts about the candidates.
MS. CALMES: But what’s been so extraordinary is the amount of free media that Donald Trump has gotten, which is completely –
MR. SCHERER: Not all positive.
MS. CALMES: And that’s the thing, where he – so why wouldn’t he be leading? Well, because in that free media, the coverages of things – of things he’s said that have backfired on him, to say the least.
MR. BALZ: And the coverage really since he became effectively the Republican nominee has been tougher than it was when he had opponents in the Republican race.
MS. IFILL: But does it feel to any of you that we’re stuck in – still in a primary campaign, especially on the Republican side – that he did so spectacularly well without having to have spent any money that he thinks he can run the same campaign in the general election? But it’s kind of a different – and not to mention the fact that we’re counting electoral votes.
MR. SCHERER: The answer is what day is it this week?
MS. IFILL: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MR. SCHERER: You know, like he clearly came out of the primary believing that the people at his rallies could make a majority of the country. I mean, he was talking about winning in Michigan. He was talking about winning, you know, huge numbers in Pennsylvania, in New York State, because he knows these people. And he was talking about the people he sees when he goes to an arena. And that group of people is not enough –
MS. IFILL: And we’ve been to a lot of arenas on the night before the candidate lost that were completely packed.
MR. SCHERER: Right, and that –
MS. BALL: Mitt Romney was packing the halls.
MS. IFILL: (Laughs.) Exactly.
MR. SCHERER: And the people who want to chant “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it” are not enough to win the election, and that is very clear now. And so we’ve seen over the last several weeks –
MS. IFILL: Is that clear to him?
MR. SCHERER: I think it depends on the week. (Laughter.) So you see him – you know, some days he’ll be very presidential, some days he’ll go the black church; the next day he’s in Phoenix giving them red meat, you know? And it really varies dramatically day to day.
MS. CALMES: Well, I’ve been as surprised as anyone that he didn’t pivot more to a more general election message and audience. But I think one thing –
MS. IFILL: But it’s early September.
MS. CALMES: It is, but one thing we I think should keep in mind is that there’s been a lot of attention to the fact that Democrats have demographics on their side looking forward. The diverse electorate, increasingly, in a lot of states are going to play to Democrats’ advantage and are playing to Democrats’ advantage, fewer white people. But there was a theory that came out after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 that – on the right, and especially in the fever swamps that Trump inhabits – that there were – I mean, this – but it’s – there are credible people who believe this too, that the trick is to get more white people out. There are more white people to be had; that they just need to get them out. And I think Trump thinks he’s the man to win this with white votes.
MR. BALZ: But I think that the difference in this campaign and the issue that’s going to be tested is the white college-educated vote, which Molly talked about earlier. I think that’s the make-or-break part of the vote for Donald Trump. Mitt Romney won that vote with 56 percent of the population to 42 percent for President Obama. Donald Trump is losing that vote, and particularly white college-educated women. And I think all of these other moves he’s made that appear to be doing outreach is aimed at that, but so far there’s no evidence that he’s making any inroads with that part of the electorate. And if he doesn’t, he can’t win. I don’t think there are enough of the blue-collar – you know, the white non-college-educated voters, even if there are more who come out, to offset that.
MS. IFILL: Does he win or lose – there are all these double-edged swords out there, but by bashing the media, by turning questions about his accuracy, his veracity into questions about whether we’re after him, yet we have this responsibility and this frustration that we have to hold him accountable. How do we, dear friends, manage that?
MR. SCHERER: I think we keep doing what we’re doing.
MS. BALL: Yeah, I mean, I think candidates bash the media as a tactic because they know that we might be the only people in America less popular than politicians, depending on the day. (Laughter.) And so, you know, I think – it’s also nothing new for candidates to bash the media. Trump may have taken it to new levels by a sort of order of magnitude.
MS. IFILL: Well, and Hillary Clinton to her credit put out a media-bashing fundraising email this week, so it’s not just Donald Trump doing it, right?
MS. BALL: Exactly. You know, we’ve all been hearing this for years. People go after us because they don’t like the thing that they did that we reported on.
MS. IFILL: Right. (Laughter.) We’re tough.
MS. BALL: (Laughs.) So yeah, I mean, we can take it. I’m not worried about our feelings. But you do have a public that I think is increasingly distressed by feeling that they don’t know who to trust. And the reason that these – that these attacks on the media resonate is because people do feel torn between so many different sets of not even just opinions, but sets of facts in the media landscape of the internet, where you can choose your own news. And so I think the candidates are taking advantage of that by using this as a tactic.
MR. BALZ: There’s no sort of arbiter that people trust anymore.
MS. BALL: Except Dan Balz. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. BALZ: Not according to my emails, Molly. (Laughter.) I mean, it used to be that the media was seen in a sense, you know, like referees in a – you know, a football game; that they’re there to kind of enforce the rules, call – you know, call penalties when they happen. We continue to do that, but for, you know, one slice of the electorate or another, we’re discredited in part because the candidates and the parties – and both engage in it – help to try to discredit us.
MR. SCHERER: At the same time, though, the penalties this cycle are so much more glaring than in last cycles. This isn’t like a debate over whether to use dynamic scoring to figure out what the deficit impact of a tax plan is going to be. And what’s interesting about Clinton’s campaign for the last couple months is her major message has been quoting Donald Trump. I mean, her campaign ads are just quotes of Donald Trump. Her speeches, or when Tim Kaine gives speeches, is quoting Donald Trump.
MS. IFILL: He gives her a lot of material.
MR. SCHERER: A lot of material, and vice versa. I mean, I think there’s a lot of things she’s said in handling the email where she stumbles over herself, and he just points to that. And in the press, we’re fact-checking. Sometimes it’s very difficult because it’s, you know, so many facts to check, but – (laughter) – as we go. But really, I think, you know, most voters are going to get beyond the does the media – is the media trying to swing this to just look at what they’re saying.
MS. IFILL: I have to end this by noting that this weekend marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And when people ask you whether it’s possible for you to vote, whether it’s necessary to vote, it’s important to remember that a lot of people rushed into the fire when the rest of us were rushing away to make our lives possible. Thank you, everybody.
And especially thank you to our generous audience and hosts here at Colorado College and at Rocky Mountain PBS. Stay tuned and we’ll take questions from our audience on the Washington Week Webcast Extra: Colorado Edition, which you can find on most PBS stations and online at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we’ll see you back in the nation’s capital – boo hoo! – next week on Washington Week. Good night. (Applause.)