On Tuesday, Donald Trump could close the deal with his toughest customer to date: the American people.
The stunning rise of a brash political neophyte to the top of the Republican ticket early this year threw American political wisdom on its head. But as the summer closed, his momentum sagged. Just three weeks ago, even his campaign manager was voicing doubts publicly.
Now with Election Day just two days away, polls show that Mr. Trump has rebounded. The idea of a New York real estate tycoon becoming the 45th president of the United States of America is growing more plausible.
Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com now has Trump at a 35.4 percent chance of winning the presidency (up from just 12 percent three weeks ago), as polls in key battleground states have begun to swing in his favor, primarily as reluctant Republicans shift his way. One possible path to victory involves holding onto all the states Mitt Romney won in 2012 – including contested North Carolina, Arizona and Utah (where his favorability rating has tanked). He also needs to add Florida, Ohio and Iowa, and while flipping a blue state such as Pennsylvania or New Mexico.
Nevertheless, “the Republican’s chances keep growing,” concludes Jonathan Swan, for The Hill.
But even if he fails to overcome Hillary Clinton's lead, his unorthodox candidacy, so fraught with controversy and cynicism, has stunned American politics.
Trump has remained steadfast through scandal and campaign shake-ups, from dissing Arizona Sen. John McCain's military service to his attack on conservative Fox TV media icon Megyn Kelly. His willingness to take on all comers, no matter their stripes, has fascinated many and energized millions of people who have felt marginalized or unrepresented.
“If you ignore frustration for too long, it finds its outlet," J.D. Vance, the author of "Hillbilly Elegy," told The Christian Science Monitor in late August.
The Republican candidate's contention that America has "become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems" has resonated far deeper than his character.
Between his hotel and resort properties, and seven seasons as a reality TV star, Trump entered the race with plenty of name recognition. But he also picked perhaps the perfect moment. The country has seen polarization (race, class, gender, income) seem to deepen throughout eight years with a Democrat in the White House. While the economy has rebounded, the recovery has been uneven.
Trump appeals to working class whites, especially, who don't just feel marginalized by the coastal elites, but outright attacked. "If somebody tells us to shut up, we’re going to speak as loud as we can," as League of the South founder Michael Hill told the Monitor this summer.
That feeling that some Americans – perhaps a lot of Americans – aren't getting a seat at the table drove big crowds to both Trump and Bernie Sanders, Mrs. Clinton's chief rival in the Democratic primary.
Of course, to many, Clinton is the embodiment of elite privilege. The email scandal has summed that sense of privilege up for many voters.
Clinton’s problems “could be enough to get Trump into the White House,” writes NPR’s Sarah McCammon. “Trump’s candidacy has emboldened many Americans with a belief that the country’s leaders are incompetent and corrupt, people who resent being told their thoughts and words are not politically correct.” What’s more, they see a changing country, foreign menaces, and a heartless economy that has left too many hardworking Americans behind.
Yet just weeks ago, Trump's campaign seemed to have finally derailed.
A 2005 Access Hollywood video, in which he brags about acts that could constitute sexual assault, and his off-message rants seemed to be taking a toll. His poll numbers began tanking as Republican suburbanites, especially, recoiled. But those numbers have now reversed. Trump trails by just 1.8 percentage points on RealClearPolitics polling average; three weeks ago, Clinton had 7 point lead.
His late surge has been tied to several factors, but none bigger than the decision by FBI Director James Comey to announce his agency was looking at the emails of a top aide's husband, disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. It seems to have reminded Americans of some of the sordid incidents of Bill Clinton’s time in the White House, and Clinton’s profile as a consummate Washington insider. Both candidates have seen gains in the polls when their opponent is enduring negative news, and that has affected primarily Clinton in the waning days of the campaign.
Trump has also been more disciplined lately on the stump, at times being self-deprecating, and, at one recent stop, downplaying his financial bets as compared to the service of military veterans. He has dropped the talk of a rigged election in favor of his stalwart poll numbers. He has also stopped talking about a long, deserved vacation if he loses.
He has made progress with mainstream Republican voters who had been turned off, but are now facing the possibility of another Clinton presidency. White working-class women, for one, have begun to trend toward Trump in recent days. His support among Republicans as a whole has risen from 83 percent on Oct. 23, according to ABC News/Washington Post, to 88 percent now.
Critically, key Republican leaders and arbiters – including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell – have affirmed their support for the Republican nominee.
Many Americans fear a Trump win. A political neophyte, he’s also seen by many as emblematic of the politics of toxic masculinity. His willingness to invite conspiracy theories seem to tear at fundamental societal contracts, including the voting franchise itself, which he claims can be stolen, despite lack of evidence.
President Obama said on Friday that a Trump win would be “badly damaging for this country and it would be damaging for the world.”
But Trump has pushed back against assertions that he’s not qualified, including direct pleas to Americans about his trustworthiness as a potential commander-in-chief. After clinching the nomination in June, he told Republicans, “I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle, and I will never, ever let you down.”
This week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest struggled to explain Trump’s rise, but told reporters he’d wait until Election Day to opine on how broadly Trump’s message has actually resonated. Trump “has been playing on anxieties, economic and otherwise, of a large swath of the American electorate,” he said.
To be sure, at least according to polls, the election is Clinton’s to lose. That said, it’s now well within reason that America could elect a president named Trump.