There have been times, since the day last summer when a friend and I decided to repeat our 2008 election road trip, when it has felt like we had booked ourselves front row seats for the beginning of the end of the world. By early August, the polls had narrowed enough to put Donald Trump within touching distance of Hillary Clinton, and news emerged that he’d been asking why he couldn’t, in theory, use nuclear weapons, should he get the urge. Not content with the racism and the misogyny and the demagoguery, Trump was also suggesting to advisors that he might, in theory, unleash a nuclear holocaust.
But then the debates happened, and footage emerged of Trump bragging about sexual assault, and women started to come forward to say that, no, this was not just talk – and Clinton’s lead widened. And suddenly it wasn’t a matter of whether she could eke out a win in Virginia and Pennsylvania; suddenly there was serious talk that Trump could lose such reliably red states as Arizona and Alaska and Utah. This wasn’t just going to be a defeat, this was going to be a rout.
By last Friday, I was excited about the election again. Fivethirtyeight, the most conservative of the polling aggregators, was giving Clinton an 85 per cent chance of winning the election. Her chances of losing were lower than her chances of winning Texas. I got on the plane feeling good.
When I got off it again, I had a text from my wife: “WTF is going on with these Weiner emails?”
In 2008, when we last did this trip, I was bored. I was working for a newspaper for doctors, and as interesting as I personally found health policy, I’d become very familiar with the look of glazed terror people get at parties when they’ve just asked you what you do and are now desperately looking for somebody else to talk to.
But I’d been a US politics nerd since around the time Sam Seaborne first got the message “POTUS in a bicycle accident”, and the combination of Barack Obama and the financial crash meant it felt like it was going to be an interesting year. My friend Scot and I each had a bunch of leave to use up, so we hatched a plan: in the last two weeks of the election campaign we would drive about 2000 miles, hit as many swing states as possible, talk to everyone we could and, hey, maybe learn a bit about ourselves along the way. (We did: we learned that we have a violent difference of opinion regarding the relative intelligence of cats and dogs, and seriously fell out somewhere in Indiana.)
And this, somehow, in an underpants gnomes sort of a way, would be my big break.
It wasn’t – six days after the election, I found myself back at my desk, talking to angry GPs once again – but on every other level it was an amazing experience. We met the Rednecks for Obama, and visited a McCain/Palin campaign office where a kindly and earnest woman tried to convince us that oil pipelines would be good for Alaskan wildlife (“The pipeline gives them something warm to huddle up to!”) We went to a creationist natural history museum, where waxwork Adam and Eve frolick with vegetarian dinosaurs, where there’s a video of Noah’s flood overwhelming the earth, and whose owner later invited his supporters to pray for my soul. And on the night before the election, in a field somewhere in North Carolina, we stood in the rain in a crowd of thousands and heard the next president of the United States speak.
And finally I had something good to bore people with at parties.
We decided to repeat the trip for basically the same reasons we did it the first time round (spare leave, big nerd). Plus, having seen the Obama years in, there was a nice symmetry in being there to see them out, too.
But when the polls started to narrow, I found myself becoming painfully aware that there was another reason I remember that trip so nostalgically: we won. Okay, it’s not my country: “We” didn’t do anything. But after eight years of George W. Bush and the War on Terror, Obama’s victory really did feel like a victory for my own liberal values. And on our way around the US, it felt like Obama was winning. Being in Washington DC that night as it turned into a street party felt, in the best possible way, like I was seeing history happen. And I was there.
Now those liberal values are more under siege than ever, and on Election Day this year we’re planning to be in DC again. If Trump wins, I’m not sure I’ll feel quite so nostalgic for this time around.
So WTF is with the Weiner emails? FBI director James Comey announcing that the bureau is re-opening its investigation into a presidential candidate 11 days before the election certainly sounds pretty bad. So is this the implosion the Republicans have been waiting for? Are we now set for President Trump, a wall on the Mexican border and the end of civilisation as we know it?
I’m guessing, of course. But my instinct, based on everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to, is: probably not. The odds are still in Clinton’s favour, for several reasons.
Firstly, there are two groups with a vested interest talking up the scandal. One is obviously the Trump campaign, but the other is the media. “Candidate with six point lead coasts to victory” is a boring story. “SCANDAL MEANS THIS THING COULD GO EITHER WAY” is much better.
So, yes, people are noisily saying this changes everything. That does not mean it will.
Secondly, the whole thing is a bit abstract. All we know is that a Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, sometimes shared a laptop with her then husband, the inadvertently hilarious disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner, and now there are a lot of emails on it. That, so far, is it. It’s hardly Watergate, is it?
The big one, though, is: whose mind is going to be changed by this? The Clinton email affair has been rumbling on for months, and her trustworthinesss ratings were already terrible – yet still she led in the polls because, well, because Trump. Can there really be that many people who care that strongly about which email server their politicians use, who haven’t been planning to vote against Clinton for ages?
At least – I hope. But there were signs polls were narrowing even before this broke. And the Trump campaign has been surprisingly open about the fact that its best shot at this point is “voter suppression”: persuading the other side’s voters not to show up. The FBI investigation probably won’t change minds, but it might affect who actually bothers to vote.
So, this is not necessarily an existential threat to the Clinton campaign. But it’s certainly not good – and we’re not likely to know how bad it is until it’s too late.