Is there anything that might cause Donald Trump to win the US presidential election? That’s the question political pundits are asking obsessively these days as the main parties’ campaigns take increasingly unpredictable turns.
A month ago Trump was almost level with Hillary Clinton in the polls but, since then, a series of gaffes has caused his numbers to slide. This week, for example, an IBT poll suggests Clinton now has a 12-point lead. While this might indicate that the Democrats are cruising for victory, the election has been so uncertain in recent months that nobody dares take anything for granted.
So what might suddenly cause momentum to swing again? To my mind, there are at least three factors to watch. The most obvious is that Trump himself implements a change of course, becoming much more professional and effective in running his campaign. That is hard to believe right now but the key person to watch is Kellyanne Conway, a pollster recently brought in to serve as campaign manager. Highly respected in Republican circles and regarded as a very effective operator, she might just possibly end up turning the campaign around.
A second factor is whether a nasty external shock occurs. Trump, after all, is a candidate whose campaign is built on stoking up fear, in the mould of former president Richard Nixon. If, God forbid, a big terrorist attack occurs — or something else that causes panic — this might play into Trump’s hands, particularly if his campaign had already shifted momentum under Conway.
However, there is a third possibility that has gained less attention: cyber hacking. This summer, the Democratic National Committee revealed it had suffered a cyber attack and that many confidential internal documents had been stolen. CrowdStrike, the cyber security group employed by the DNC, said the culprits were Russia’s intelligence services. This was denied by Moscow, but backed up by other cyber security groups such as Mandiant and Fidelis Cybersecurity.
This is a bizarre turn of events, by any standards, not least because some 20,000 internal DNC emails have now been released via WikiLeaks and a blogging site called Guccifer 2.0. But matters may get worse. CrowdStrike says one Russian hacking group, given the nickname Cozy Bear, was in the DNC system for at least a year. It is unclear what material has been taken but cyber experts believe Cozy Bear holds extensive secret documents, including confidential memos detailing the negative traits of Democratic candidates in this year’s US elections. (It is standard practice for campaign managers to try to assemble all the dirt on their own candidates in advance, so they are prepared in case their opponents try to attack them.)
If this is true — like almost everything else in the cyber security sphere, very little can be conclusively proved — it seems that only a small portion of the sensitive material has emerged. So it is possible that the hackers will leak this in the coming months, in a targeted way, trying to cause maximum damage. This week, for example, Guccifer 2.0 leaked data about the tactics that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used in House races in Pennsylvania. This is the first time the hackers have tried to shape momentum in a local race. And if these leaks accelerate, they might stoke up more anti-Clinton feeling, particularly given the separate controversies surrounding Clinton’s personal email server. Or so the gossip goes.
On one level, this theory sounds almost fantastical and it is entirely possible that speculation will die away in a few months and that Clinton will romp to victory.
But the very fact that Washington is abuzz with these rumours right now illustrates two key points. First, just how strange this current election campaign has become on both sides and, second, the degree to which the bizarre has almost become the norm in US politics this past year. In this election we face a world of James Bond meetsAlice in Wonderland, where political boundaries are stealthily shifting, day-by-day. Stand by for more surprises — from Cozy Bear, or anyone else.
Illustration by Ulla Puggaard