For Hillary Clinton, August has been a pretty easy month. She’s made scripted, largely news-free campaign appearances while opponent Donald Trump has produced lots of headlines but stumbled to a high-single digit deficit in the polls.
That’s likely going to change, and Clintonworld knows it. Trump’s appointment of Breitbart chairman Stephen Bannon as campaign chief executive signals a new, more aggressive stage of Election 2016.
Breitbart, a swashbuckling conservative website, has shown little compunction about delving into Clinton-related controversies. These include things Democrats say are dubious conspiracy theories, such as charges that Clinton is concealing ill health.
How is Clinton going to defend against such an approach? Ignoring the charges risks allowing them to gain momentum. Engaging with them risks giving them some validity.
One possible approach: turn up the volume on attacks on the messenger.
“I think she needs to discredit this change in [Trump campaign] leadership and show it is a sinking ship,” says Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library at Saint Anselm College.
Lately Clinton has done pretty much the opposite, of course. Since the end of the Democratic National Convention on July 28 she’s followed one of the first rules of political campaigning: don’t get in the way of an opponent who’s hurting himself.
As Trump spent days pinballing from one self-referential controversy to another – such as fighting with the Muslim family of a soldier killed in Iraq to insisting that President Obama is a literal founder of ISIS to asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails – Clinton stuck to the basics. Her August schedule has largely centered on controlled appearances that generate local news coverage and little else.
That seems to be Trump’s basic strategy, of course. He has long insisted that all Trump news is good news, in that it allows him to divert attention away from opponents and make votes a referendum on himself.
That worked for him the primary campaign. None of his opponents managed to make much of a dent into the Trump-centric coverage, and GOP primary voters approved. But in the general election campaign that hasn’t worked so far. For the much broader general electorate, it appears that all Trump mentions aren’t just brand advertising. Negative stories drive them away.
“Trump has done a remarkable job letting this campaign be about his weaknesses,” tweeted Lee Drutman, a senior fellow for political reform at the New America think tank, on Thursday.
“Or maybe Clinton has done a great job shifting the campaign away from her weaknesses,” Drutman added in a second tweet.
Trump’s new campaign team, if nothing else, wants Clinton weaknesses at the front and center of US voters’ attention. In the past, Stephen Bannon has boasted of his ability to get investigative reporters in all manner of media interested in anti-Clinton stories.
“Judging from Bannon’s history, Trump’s campaign will become even harsher in its attacks on Hillary Clinton and work hard to insinuate anti-Clinton stories into the mainstream media,” writes left-leaning Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
This means everything from coverage of possible conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s government service to Clinton’s health. Right-leaning media in recent days has been questioning whether what they say is an increase in Clinton’s use of pillows and stools means she is suffering lingering effects from some sort of illness or injury.
Trump himself indirectly raised this issue during his foreign policy speech earlier this week, saying Clinton lacked the “stamina and focus” to take on ISIS.
There is no credible evidence Clinton is hiding health problems. Her personal physician released a statement to that effect earlier this week.
In the end, the two campaigns may now speed the next weeks, trying to make the November election a referendum on their opponent. That’s a time-honored way to try and overcome one’s own electoral weaknesses.