America Letter: Calling the White House race a trappy affair

Trump and Sanders have embarrassed the pundits by rising so high and staying there

US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on stage during a primary night rally in Concord, New Hampshire. Photograph: Getty Images

US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on stage during a primary night rally in Concord, New Hampshire. Photograph: Getty Images

 

There’s a masterly, nakedly honest quote that is not wheeled out often enough. It should be, particularly during the topsy-turvy, down-the-rabbit-hole odyssey that is the American presidential race.

William Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and All The President’s Men (and The Princess Bride, favourite movie of Republican candidate Ted Cruz) proclaimed in his memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, that “nobody knows anything”.

“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one,” Goldman continued.

For current purposes, swap the words “motion picture” for “political” above.

Few, if anyone, predicted the rise of billionaire Donald Trump or socialist Bernie Sanders at the beginning of this rise of the insurgencies.

In the 75 national polls of Republican or Republican-leaning voters since July, Trump has led in all but five. One of those five, published on Wednesday, caused a ripple. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed Cruz two points ahead of Trump, at 28 to 26 per cent. It was the first time Trump has lost his national poll lead since November.

In July, a month after Trump launched his presidential bid, I spoke to a Capitol Hill staffer, a senior aide to a Republican congressman, about the businessman’s prospects in the primary and his latest outrageous comments. It was one of those off-record discussions intended to take the temperature of a pool of opinion: an establishment Republican who has been in Washington for years.

He expressed bewilderment about where Trump’s headline-grabbing remarks was taking the race: “He is sucking all the air out of everything. It’s crazy because he is not going to be there at the end.”

The individual was working off a guess, and – as Goldman put it – an educated one at that. But he has been proven wrong.

He is far from alone. Some in America’s punditocracy have been eating words over their forecasting of a race that has ripped up the election textbooks. It is hard to blame political prognosticators given how Teflon Trump has been. Word of his demise has been greatly exaggerated, outrageous remark after outrageous remark.

After Republican candidate Carly Fiorina zinged Trump with a superb debate one-liner in response to the property tycoon questioning how voters could vote for “that face” in September, NBC News commentator Chuck Todd predicted Mr Trump’s “slow fall”.

“Over time I think this is the week we are going to look back on and say, maybe this was the beginning of the end of Trump ’16,” he said.

Arianna Huffington blogged on The Huffington Post about Trump’s impending demise after Fiorina’s remark in an article: “The Beginning of the End for Trump: His Sarah Palin Moment.” (Fiorina dropped out of the race last week; Trump’s average support is 34 per cent.)

‘Don Voyagy!’

Mara Llasson, national political correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), even boldly predicted on Fox News on the day of The Donald’s presidential campaign launch in June: “This is Donald Trump’s biggest day. And he will be ignored from henceforth.”

A month later, the New York Post screamed “Don Voyage!” on a front page story: “Trump is toast after insult: ‘McCain not a war hero’.”

Not that they all are alone in underestimating the appeal of a candidate. In April 2015, a few days before Sanders launched his campaign, I reported on an event in Columbia, South Carolina where all the then expected Democratic candidates, except Hillary Clinton, were speaking. My focus was on former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as he was due to fly to Ireland to deliver a speech two days later.

While queueing for breakfast in a bog-standard budget hotel, I spotted Sanders filling a cereal bowl. He was alone, no campaign aides around him. A short time later, I introduced myself as he was about to step into a taxi, again alone. We exchanged pleasantries but he had no desire to talk any longer.

Later, when a local press secretary introduced us at a news conference, he acknowledged me: “Yes, my Irish friend.”

In his speech, Sanders gave his usual impassioned performance – something that has electrified grassroots liberals – promising to put manners on Wall Street and break up the big banks. I recall thinking as I listened that his message would go down well in post-crisis Ireland but felt that, in the US, he would struggle to make in-roads in the Democratic mainstream against Clinton.

How wrong I was. On Thursday, a Fox News poll gave Sanders a 47 per cent to 44 per cent edge over Clinton, putting him in the lead in a national poll for the first time in 14 months.