AMY WALTER: I’m Amy Walter, filling in for Gwen Ifill. This is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on air.
The third and final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be this Wednesday in Las Vegas. The last debate was a town hall. This one will be the more traditional format. So, Josh, do we think the candidates are going to shift their strategies in this final debate?
JOSHUA GREEN: It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump shifting his strategy because he really only has one gear. He can put the pedal down a little further, which I suspect we’ll see from Trump, but –
MS. WALTER: So no pulling back, no going gentle? You know, this is –
MR. GREEN: I have seen on sign whatsoever that Trump has any intention of pulling back on anything. I think – I think it would be in the other direction now.
MOLLY BALL: It’s also clear, you know, having been with Trump a few days this week, the feedback that he has internalized is that he won the second debate, even though most of the reputable polls showed that he didn’t. He clearly did show improvement from the first debate. And so you hear him talking about it on the stump, and he really believes that was the correct approach, the approach he took to Hillary Clinton. He’s been complaining about some of the critiques of the way he stood on the stage. But he is going to do that again because he thinks that that was a winning strategy for him. And he did, you know, do a better job of not getting totally distracted in the second debate the way he did in the first debate. You know, it’s a low bar, which is why I think those polls still showed that he didn’t win the debate even though he clearly improved his performance is that he could improve his performance a lot and still not do better than she did. And so I think you’ll see Hillary Clinton bringing the same strategy to the debate as well because it’s been working for her.
MS. WALTER: Well, has it, Dan? I mean, she – yes, the polls have shown that she had – she was the winner of the first two debates, but can she just go in as sort of a prevent defense kind of candidate right now? Or does she need to be –
DAN BALZ: Well, she can because she’s in a more enviable position, given all of the polling both nationally and in the states. And so, you know, in that sense, don’t upset the apple cart, don’t do something that would – you know, would refocus attention on your own problems, and keep it on Donald Trump.
I think for her there’s a couple of questions. One is, the first debate she clearly had a strategy to get under his skin and was very successful at it. It was less clear what her strategy was in the second debate. And I think that’s why, in a sense, Donald Trump’s performance looked better for him in comparison, and she was judged the winner but not by kind of the overwhelming margin.
I think the other aspect for her is this is the last chance she’s got to make a positive case for her potential presidency. And if she thinks she’s going to be president, she needs to be able to say by the time this is over I got a mandate for something, not simply that you guys elected me because you all disliked Donald Trump so much. So that’s the question for her going in: How much of that does she try to do?
MS. WALTER: I think that’s – and we’ve been saying this, Dan – (laughter) – I think you and I have been writing this throughout – that she needs to make a positive case for herself. Alexis, does she have that to say?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Well, she does have that to say. To mention the last, Chris Wallace will be the moderator, and it will be a more traditional format with two podiums and two candidates, not the town hall with voters. And also the issues have been put out there, supposedly the issues that this is supposed to center around. One of them is right in his wheelhouse, immigration. The other one has to do with entitlement – you know, the budget, looking into the future of our fiscal health, the economy and all that. So, if she wants to be the policy wonk and have a positive view, which she likes to do through policy, right, the bringing together, she’s got some work that she can – you know, some work she can do. But Chris Wallace is going to – he’s going to put her on the griddle. He will.
MR. GREEN: But this has – this has been a perennial problem for Clinton. She’s benefitted greatly from having Donald Trump as an opponent, but when it comes time to go positive and to articulate what her candidacy’s about, she’s had trouble exciting people. And one of the interesting things in the WikiLeaks emails, supposedly the Clinton emails, were you got to see her staffers discussing this: well, what should we – what should she say she’s for?
MS. SIMENDINGER: What is this election about?
MR. GREEN: What is this election about? They’re struggling with the question, clearly. And that’s an argument that Clinton needs to make to voters. She needs to be for something clear and compelling.
MS. BALL: Well, and I think the problem that she has is she tends to see policy as a substitute for vision. So you do have her able to talk about policy in very detailed and complex terms, and it drives the Clinton fans a little bit crazy when you say what does she stand for, and they’re like, no, look at the website, she’s got all of these white papers. But policy is not a substitute for vision, and people do get the sense from her that she’s for whatever people want her to be for – that they go out and they do a poll, and when they find out what voters want, she gets up and says that’s what she’s for.
MR. GREEN: And the emails kind of show that, too. (Laughter.)
MS. BALL: And the emails show that that’s actually true, right? And so I think she has a really hard time. I was thinking about why the argument was so convincing coming from Michelle Obama when Hillary has tried to say basically the same thing.
MS. WALTER: Make the same thing, yep.
MS. BALL: But when she says it, she’s unable to personalize it in quite that way and to give it that emotional heft. And it may be something she’s just – just don’t have the chops for. But I agree with Dan, that’s the piece that’s missing when you talk to especially what have become the swing voters of this election, Republicans and conservative-leaning independents who are horrified by Trump. But it’s really hard for them to come around to voting for Hillary Clinton because they feel like she hasn’t filled in that missing piece that would make them feel sort of safe with her.
MS. WALTER: I want to talk about President Obama, though, who’s trying to knock off some items on his bucket list before he leaves the White House in January. It seems the closer he gets to the exit, the more unplugged he’s become in speaking out on the election to replace him. Here’s what he said to the Congressional Black Caucus last month.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. (Applause.) You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote.
MS. WALTER: And on the campaign trail.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) There’s a guy on the radio who apparently Trump’s on his show frequently, he said me and Hillary are demons. Said we smell like sulfur. Ain’t that something. (Laughter.) Now – (laughs) – I mean, come on, people.
MS. WALTER: So, Alexis, this is like a president that is – he’s YOLO, right? (Laughter.) Like, this is I’m going out – I’m going out on my own terms. Are we – are we seeing this correctly?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, but there’s also a strategy in what he’s been doing. So for months and months and months the White House has been saying that the role that the president wanted to play was to encourage people to vote, and to try to encourage that coalition of the electorate that he built twice in his elections, and to try to figure out how he could help Hillary Clinton, whom he expected and wanted to be the nominee, right? So he has said, you know, this is important. You have to vote, you have to participate. And he’s been out there to encourage this. But, because Donald Trump is the Republican nominee and it is so personal for him – remember, Donald Trump is the person who ginned up the birther element of this, and President Obama has made his contempt for Donald Trump pretty clear for years. So this is personal for him and it’s personal to the African-American community, who is collectively in some mourning about losing an African-American president and, you know, maybe not as persuaded to turn out for Hillary Clinton. And he’s turning on all of the stops. But as you say, he’s playing a lot of golf, he is denigrating Congress at every turn, he’s, you know, going on television or celebrating the end here with the kinds of things he’s doing by executive power and, you know, slapping everybody that he can – I’m going to do what I want to do. And he seems to be enjoying himself to the end. Now, I should also mention, where are his job numbers? His job numbers are pretty healthy. So he can afford it.
MS. WALTER: So when you have a 51 percent approval rating –
MS. SIMENDINGER: You can be out there saying, you know, look at me.
MS. WALTER: All right, I want to get to one more thing, and that’s the most recent polling. And it suggests that Trump’s bad week has taken a toll. NBC News/The Wall Street Journal poll shows Clinton up by nine points. A Fox News poll that just came out yesterday has her up by seven. So, Dan, let’s talk about the electoral path, then, for Donald Trump, given these numbers. They weren’t great before the last debate and the Access Hollywood tape, but they seem even worse now. Is there an electoral path for him? And if so, where does it go?
MR. BALZ: Well, it’s exceedingly difficult. I mean, think about it as sort of three heavy lifts. I mean, the first is to hold all of the states that Mitt Romney won. That’s not easy because North Carolina is a real battleground, and he’s at risk of losing that. But let’s say he’s able to do that. Then he needs both Ohio and Florida. Now, he’s been holding his own in Ohio. The polls seems to have moved back in Hillary Clinton’s direction, but he’s been holding his own there largely because of demographics. Florida is going to be a battle to the end, but she seems to have a bit of an edge, and the demographics there are a little more favorable to her. So let’s say he gets those two. He’s still, what, a dozen or 15, 17 short of 270. Then what does he do? Does he go after Pennsylvania? There’s no evidence that he’s cracked that case yet. Does he go after some of the other Midwestern states? There’s no evidence of that. Then he has to cobble together some smaller states. Iowa he’s done well in. He seems to have a lead there still. Then does he go after Nevada? That doesn’t quite get him there. Maybe he goes after New Hampshire. I mean, it’s reduced to an almost, you know, threading that needle, so difficult that it’s hard to see how he gets there unless everything suddenly breaks his way. But he’s got to make up ground. I mean, he’s got to make up ground. You can’t be even three or four points behind. We forget President Obama won reelection with a little over 3 percent margin and had 332 electoral votes.
MS. BALL: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a path that runs through any particular set of states. It’s like you said, it’s a giant swing in the national vote. It’s something weird happening. And that’s been the case for Trump all along, has been, yes, something weird would have to happen for him to win. But something weird has already happened: Donald Trump’s the Republican nominee. (Laughter.) So, hey, who knows?
MR. GREEN: Well, and the way that the Trump advisors talk about this, too, they don’t believe the polls. I mean, when I talked to a top Trump advisor, he said, look, all polls are based on modeling; in those public polls the model is flawed. And they pointed me to the Brexit polls. You know, Brexit was not supposed to happen, and it did. And they say, see, look, polls don’t matter, we’ve got our own models. They say we’re going to win.
MS. WALTER: So do they actually have their own models? Because my understanding is that there’s no data, this is just – this is a wish.
MR. GREEN: They do have their own models. There is a firm called Cambridge Analytica that’s funded by Robert Mercer, a right-wing billionaire who was a Cruz guy and is now a Trump guy. There is considerable debate within the kind of data-geek community about the value of Cambridge Analytica’s work, but they are producing work for the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign is looking at that and responding to it. And that tells them, they tell me, that there’s still a chance.
MS. WALTER: There’s a chance. You’re telling me there’s a chance. (Laughter.)
MR. GREEN: There’s a chance. Dumb and Dumber, not a coincidence that we’re quoting from that movie.
MS. WALTER: Donald Trump’s current wife and children have been campaigning for him, but we hear very little from his first wife, Ivana. And, Molly, you talked to her a little while back. What did she tell you? And what is her insight into what’s happening right now?
MS. BALL: Well, she is a Trump supporter, and she actually voted for him in the Florida primary. Ivana spends part of the year in New York and part of the year in Florida and part of the year in the south of France. And I included my interview with her in an article about sort of the gender divide in the campaign, and I used her as sort of a lens to understand the women who love Donald Trump. And she quite literally is a woman who has loved Donald Trump, and she doesn’t bear him any lingering bitterness for the divorce. I asked her if it hurt her feelings to have been sort of used up and thrown away the way that he did, and she said, I am Eastern European woman; I am strong. (Laughter.) But you know, she said that, you know, to Donald Trump the divorce was a business deal, and once it was over – and we do see this pattern, you know. Trump can be – can be very, very angry at the people he has a grudge against, and then he can also make up with them very quickly and it’s all over and they – and you forget that they were ever enemies. And I think that, you know, there’s a bit of personality that they share. I think the kind of person that she is – sort of aggressive and a social climber, and a little bit of an outsider to the society that she wanted to be a part of – is pretty similar to Donald Trump.
MS. WALTER: Thank you.
And thank you, everybody. There’s more online, including this week’s Washington Week-ly News Quiz. Check it out. And we’ll see you here next time on the Washington Week Extra.