By Niall Stanage - 10-18-16 06:00 AM EDT
It's now or never for Donald Trump.
The Republican nominee must find some way to get traction in what could be an explosive presidential debate on Wednesday.
Trump now lags Hillary Clinton in the RealClearPolitics national polling average by about seven percentage points, a margin that suggests he is in danger of being routed on Nov. 8.
Data forecasting site FiveThirtyEight gives him only about a 14 percent chance of winning the White House.
That means Trump will have nothing to lose when he takes to the stage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"This may be the single nastiest debate of the cycle," GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak predicted.
Grant Reeher, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said he believed Trump would make "some kind of effort to really do something dramatic. We don't know what that is yet. But the reason for that is that his position is not good - and actually...is worse than it looks."
Reeher based that assertion in part on the belief that Trump is being seriously outgunned by the Clinton campaign when it comes to get-out-the-vote efforts, or the "ground game." According to a FiveThirtyEight count, Trump has 207 field offices nationwide, compared to 489 for Clinton.
Clinton has other advantages too. She and her allies have roughly twice as much cash on hand as Team Trump.
Clinton also continues to outpace Trump when it comes to TV ad spending. According to a Bloomberg analysis, she spent $12.9 million on TV ads in the week beginning Oct. 4. compared to about $6 million for Trump. Overall, Bloomberg noted, Clinton had outspent Trump by a factor of more than 4-to-1, $144.5 million to $31.7 million.
Even Republicans acknowledge that the prognosis is bleak for Trump.
"I think the situation is dire," said Mackowiak. "I would say that it is a fluid situation and so being declarative is risking. But based on every metric that we use to judge how campaigns are doing, Hillary is decisively winning."
There are some shards of hope for Trump backers to hold onto. On Monday, new CNN/ORC polls showed him to be competitive in three battleground states, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. Trump led by 4 points in Ohio, while Clinton had narrower leads in the other two.
On Twitter, Trump proclaimed those polls to be "great numbers" in the face of a "total media hit job."
Some Republicans also hold out hope that revelations from Julian Assange's Wikileaks organization could knock Clinton off-track. Wikileaks has kept up a steady drip of emails, apparently obtained through a hack of Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, in recent days.
Those emails have included embarrassing or awkward details from Clinton's perspective, but nothing resembling an election game-changer has been uncovered. That has not stopped some in the GOP from hoping that Wikileaks could be saving the most potent details for the final stretch of the campaign.
Still, if Trump is to scale the steep gradient that he now faces, he will have to start with a strong performance on the debate stage on Wednesday night. He was widely believed to have been more effective in the second debate, held in St. Louis on Oct. 9, than he was in his first encounter with Clinton, held just outside New York City on Sep. 26.
The second debate performance proved sufficient only to shore up Trump's campaign at its moment of greatest peril, after a videotape emerged of him talking about women in lurid and sexually aggressive terms.
The question is whether he can go several notches better on Wednesday.
A good showing "certainly could help, and provide some momentum," according to Aaron Kall, the Director of Debate at the University of Michigan and the editor of a book entitled "Debating The Donald." "It's not going to be a silver bullet in 90 minutes but it could set the narrative for the final few weeks."
A good showing for Trump would likely involve focusing on issues that play to his benefit in some crucial states, such as free trade, while also pushing Clinton onto defense on topics including her use of a private email server and the dealings of the Clinton Foundation.
But most observers believe Trump would also need Clinton to make an error - probably a sizable one - if he is to change the unfavorable dynamics of the race.
Even if she did so, Trump skeptics argue, voters may not turn to him en masse, given the controversies that now lap around his feet: the videotape, the fact that a number of women have accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior, and his own willingness to claim that the election is "rigged."
"Let's say there is some catastrophic breakdown or mistake on her part," said Reeher. "Even if that happened, you have to have presented yourself as a reasonable alternative. And he has really hurt himself in that regard."
Still, the debate is likely to attract an audience of 50 million people or more. For both candidates, this could be the last make-or-break moment of the campaign.