Early this month, I went to Toledo, Ohio, to meet with Hillary Clinton, to sit down with her for a while and take the measure of her ordeal. It was five weeks before an unnervingly high-stakes Election Day. Every campaign produces candidates declaring that “the most important election of our lifetimes” is at hand. Usually this is true only for the person running (no doubt 2012 was the most important election of Mitt Romney’s lifetime). But this year’s stakes feel legitimate. This is not only for the milestone that Clinton’s election would achieve, and all the cultural Rorschach tests, gender dynamics and political scar tissue embedded within. It’s because of Donald Trump, an astonishing figure unlike any who has ever come close to assuming power in this country. “Near existential” is how Tim Kaine recently described this campaign, and it did not come off as complete hyperbole.
Clinton had a rally scheduled in a run-down section of Toledo, the northwest Ohio city that ranked as the fourth-most economically distressed of the nation’s 100 largest. It is home to many of the struggling white working-class men who have made Ohio such tough terrain for Clinton and surprisingly fertile for her billionaire opponent. Clinton has trailed consistently in polls here, even though Barack Obama carried Ohio twice. I drove through town, passing block after block checkered with Trump signs, listening to screed after screed on talk radio about the malevolence of Obama and Clinton, and it sent me into one of those echo-chamber vortexes where I began to wonder if any Ohioans would be voting for Clinton at all.
At the same time, we were in the midst of a stretch in which journalists and political “professionals” had concluded that Trump was in a death spiral. Since tanking in the first debate at Hofstra University a week earlier, the blustering mogul had endured — or rather perpetuated — a series of self-immolations that included a fat-shaming Twitter assault on a Latina beauty queen (one of those things you never thought you’d write during a presidential campaign, and yet it barely registers a blink), a few pages of his 1995 tax return finding its way to The New York Times and the ensuing revelation that Trump had declared a $916 million loss, which could have enabled him to avoid paying 18 years’ worth of federal taxes. By the time this article went to press, Trump was facing a blizzard of new revulsion over a 2005 video obtained by The Washington Post in which the candidate is heard making lewd and lecherous claims about his treatment of women to the television host Billy Bush. Scores of high-level Republicans withdrew their support, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he was finished defending Trump and would instead focus on House and Senate races. The G.O.P. seemed as close to the brink of an all-out civil war as any major party has been in decades, especially this close to an election.
Trump had plummeted in polls nationwide and in battleground states in the days after the first debate at Hofstra, with the exception of Ohio, where a poll published on the day of the Toledo rally by Quinnipiac University showed Trump leading Clinton by five points — the only state to show Trump gaining post-Hofstra.
After Clinton’s event at an old train station, I was escorted up to an office where she was finishing an interview for “Good Luck America,” a political news show on Snapchat. The waiting area was arrayed with cushioned chairs, tables and reception desks. It felt like a doctor’s office. I took a seat next to Dan Schwerin, Clinton’s speechwriter, and Brian Fallon, the campaign’s national spokesman. Aides kept shuttling in and out of the conference room that housed “H.R.C.,” a longstanding shorthand for the candidate in memos that over time has graduated to a spoken identifier (“What does H.R.C. think?”). As had been the case since the first debate, the mood in the Clinton orbit was buoyant. Fallon mentioned that he wished the bad Trump stories could be spread out a little bit, allowing voters to hold and fully savor each in turn, rather than being force-fed them day after day.
After a few minutes, another press aide, Nick Merrill, popped his head out of the conference room, faux-squinted in my direction and said the doctor would see me now. I had not talked to Clinton in person for more than a year. She was warm and animated, but her eyes hung heavy, and she appeared somewhat worn down, no doubt still feeling some lingering aftereffects of pneumonia. In the same way that presidents seem to age eight years for every four they spend in the White House, you can see the toll this campaign has taken — the surprising challenge of Bernie Sanders, the email story and F.B.I. investigation and Trump’s nothing-off-limits pelting. She sat down next to me at a conference table, slumped back in a swiveling desk chair. Her contempt for Trump was clear from the outset, far more intense than it appears even in speeches and debates. It went well beyond the competitive fervor with which one general-election candidate tends to speak about another. “It does feel much different,” she said. “If I were running against another Republican, we’d have our disagreements, don’t get me wrong, and I would be trying to make my case vigorously. But I wouldn’t go to bed at night with a knot in the pit of my stomach.” She enunciated her T’s (“knoT in the piT”) as if she were spitting out the words.
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