By Niall Stanage - 08-16-16 06:00 AM EDT
Republican strategists say time is running out on Donald Trump.
Though there are more than 80 days to go before the election, GOP skeptics believe the party's nominee has little time left to straighten out his campaign in order to defeat Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
They note that the electoral map always favored the Democratic nominee, and lament - with some indignation - that Trump has done little since securing the GOP nomination to extend his reach beyond his core of support.
"His path to victory was narrow to begin with and it is becoming narrower every day," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. "It is not really visible to the human eye at this point."
Trump stunned the political world by winning his party's presidential nomination in his first run for office.
The victory over an impressive roster of GOP candidates shows that he can't be counted out and underscores the political class's repeated underestimation of his strengths.
In Clinton, Trump also seemingly faces a vulnerable opponent who has had her own stumbles this summer.
Yet Trump now faces a sea of troubles - some of his own making.
He is down by significant margins in many of the battleground states that will decide the election's outcome. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, he is lagging Clinton by more than 9 points in Pennsylvania, a state that is central to his aim of winning the Rust Belt.
Individual polls in recent days have been just as bad. A series of NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist surveys released last week put him down by double digits in Virginia and Colorado and by 9 points in North Carolina, a state that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried. A CBS News poll at the weekend put Trump 5 points adrift in the biggest swing state, Florida, and 9 points down in New Hampshire.
Trump's problem also goes beyond numbers, according to Republicans who have watched with dismay as the Trump campaign has careened from one crisis to another since the GOP convention, which put him briefly ahead of Clinton in national polls.
The candidate attacked a Gold Star family after they criticized him during the Democratic convention; suggested that "Second Amendment people" could take action if Hillary Clinton appointed Supreme Court justices not to their liking; and accused President Obama of being the founder of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The ISIS furor was especially emblematic of the kind of conduct that grates on the nerves of the Trump doubters within his own party. In the wake of the initial, incendiary remarks, Trump gave an interview to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who presented the nominee with an off-ramp from the controversy.
"I know what you meant," Hewitt offered. "You meant that [Obama] created the vacuum, he lost the peace."
"No," Trump averred. "I meant he's the founder of ISIS."
The fact that the GOP nominee would go on to tell a crowd that, in his original claim, he was "being sarcastic - but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you," did nothing to reassure some in the party.
"It's almost like he was thrown a lifeline and said, 'No, I'll wait for the next one,'" said Jon McHenry, a Republican strategist, referring to the Hewitt interview. "Well if you keep doing that, eventually you drown."
McHenry's firm, North Star Opinion Research, worked for the campaign of Trump's primary rival, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Trump campaign continues to evince confidence in its public pronouncements. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort is bullish about the nominee's prospects, even as he has sometimes echoed his boss's complaints about media coverage that the two men perceive to be unfair.
Yet even as Manafort sought to present a positive face, he was hit by a New York Times story published late on Sunday that suggested he had received more than $12 million in shady payments from a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine for which he had done consulting work. In a statement released Monday, Manafort strongly denied he was the recipient of any such payments.
"The suggestion that I accepted cash payments is unfounded, silly and nonsensical," the statement said.
Another twist in that tale: The Times story was shared on Twitter by Corey Lewandowski, the hard-charging former Trump campaign manager who was ousted in favor of Manafort in June. Reports have circulated that Trump continues to consult with Lewandowski for advice.
In recent days, Trump has used his Twitter account to predict that he will see "great numbers" on Election Day and that "I am truly enjoying myself while running for president." Trump also asserted at the weekend that he would be 20 points up against Clinton "if the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly."
At the same time, Trump himself last week signaled an awareness that he could lose, saying that if he did so he would take a nice vacation.
There are still opportunities for Trump to improve his standing, or for Clinton to err. One obvious example is the three presidential debates, scheduled for late September and October.
Some Republicans hold out hope that Clinton could yet be hit by more damaging revelations, whether from computer hacks or some other means.
Meanwhile, independent observers acknowledge that Trump still has political assets even amid his current travails.
One of the main ones is his ability to present himself as someone capable of bringing sweeping change. That should be especially appealing in a year when the public seems especially resentful of the status quo.
In a Bloomberg poll earlier this month, Trump had a huge lead - 60 percent to 27 percent - when respondents were asked which of the candidates was more likely to "change the way Washington does business."
Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, said that "'Volatile' under-describes how riled up the electorate is. They can turn on a dime ... Trump is the change agent."
Still, even Berkovitz was at pains to point out that, "I am not saying that the odds are in Donald Trump's favor. He has exhibited the ability to screw up every gift handed to him."
Meanwhile, even among some Republicans, there is doubt that a big late-breaking development in the final weeks of the race could fundamentally change its outcome.
"People talk about an 'October surprise,'" said Mackowiak. "Honestly I think he would need not one October surprise but several. This thing is just not competitive right now."