Donald Trump is an unusual presidential candidate. By the time a normal politician reaches the level of running for president, they have a history in government. There are bills that they have sponsored, bills that they have voted for, and things that they have done. This history allows the opponent to run ads based on this past history. Some of these ads will contrast the history to the candidate’s current pledges (e.g., this candidate supported policy X; you can’t believe them when they say that they oppose policy X). Others will use past decisions to say that the candidate has bad judgment or supports bad policies. For Trump, his history is not one of policies but of business practices. (We saw some of this in 2012 when Mitt Romney had a much longer business record than political record, but Trump takes it to the next level.)
The other thing about Trump that is unusual is how thin his policy proposals are. Most candidates put out detailed policy proposals. If you go to Trump’s website, his issues sections are thirty second to three minute mini-speeches. While campaigns do not put things out in legislation-level details, you normally get at least a thick outline of the basis for legislation. With Trump, you get at most a mini-outline of a starting position for negotiations. More importantly, Trump’s positions are ever evolving — flipping and flopping in a way that is astonishing even for a politician — in response to the pushback that comes when his speeches include something that is impractical. A classic example is his immigration policies. During the primary, he was the biggest Republican hawk on immigration. His comments this week closely resemble the bipartisan immigration reform bill that failed in the House due to Republican opposition. Which immigration policy is the real Donald Trump position. The problem is that nobody knows.
Because Trump is a political opportunist rather than someone campaigning from a core set of principles, he also has had some very strange bedfellows in this race. He simply does not care whether his support or information is coming from neo-Nazis or from true conservatives. He also does not care if the information is true.
The good new about Trump is that he makes even Republicans uneasy. Between his flirtations with racist policies and racist groups and his willingness to state that everything is up for negotiation, Republicans are scared that Trump is the devil that they don’t know. The bad news is that he is the ultimate political etch-a-sketch. While it seems unlikely that Trump could win, the campaign plan for a Trump win is simple: 1) Stop putting foot in mouth with ad libs that alienate voters and remind voters how whacky Trump is; 2) actually prepare for the debates so that Trump will come across as a competent person who is worried about the direction of the country; and 3) actually put together a campaign with field offices and ads in battleground states before voting starts. Clinton’s advantage — and the basis for her lead in polls — is that Trump seems unable to do any of the things that professional political staff want him to do. Of course, polls are based on assumptions about turnout; so a polling lead is no replacement for actually doing the work to get the people to vote that the polls assume will vote — and even better getting supporters to vote that the polls assume will not vote.