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The problem with savvy is that the takes always get worse

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BY LAURA CAVANAUGH/FILMMAGIC/GETTY IMAGES

Assertions that a major negative story about Trump a month before the election can’t possibly matter are not actually based on anything:

Nor is the assumption that these stories won’t matter with voters particularly well-founded. It is of course true that the story won’t matter with Trump’s hardcore base — but that is beside the point. All presidential candidates, even the losers in the biggest landslides, deliver their party’s base voters; that’s what makes them base voters. Trump needs voters who aren’t his base, and while the number of undecided swing voters is relatively small, they’re outsize in importance.

The assumption that the story won’t matter is particularly strange when you remember that the outcome of the 2016 election was almost certainly changed by James Comey’s decision to announce the temporary re-opening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email management practices. This is not, as Nate Silver observed in his deep dive into the subject, because it changed the minds of a particularly large number of voters, but because the extra point or two Trump gained from the late tsunami of negative coverage about Clinton made a big difference to the outcome of an election decided by 80,000 votes in three states. (And in an election that close, many other relatively small events and decisions that can’t be as easily measured could have altered the outcome.)

If a story about Hillary Clinton’s email server management could change an election’s outcome, why not a story showing Trump is a fraud as both a businessman and a taxpayer? And it’s worth noting that Trump winning or losing isn’t the only question. The margin of victory matters — for close Senate races, for the possibility that the Electoral College will malfunction and award the election to the popular vote loser, for the possibility that the outcome becomes disputed in the courts. Every point of national popular vote share is a big deal. It doesn’t take all that many voters changing their minds about who to vote for (or whether to vote at all) to make a difference.

And it is also worth noting that a story’s impact involves the discretion of the media itself. Email server security is an issue that has never been relevant to voters before or after 2016 — the story mattered because of the (vastly disproportionate) scale of coverage it received. Editors, reporters, and other political writers shouldn’t try to project themselves onto imaginary voters; they should give this story the extensive coverage it merits, and it’s up to the public to decide how to weigh it.

And finally, it is incumbent on Joe Biden’s campaign to try to make it matter. While it’s normally difficult for campaign messaging to break through, Biden has the golden opportunity of a Tuesday debate that seems to be generating an unusually high level of voter interest. Trump refusing to pay his fair share of taxes can be connected to the policy failures the Biden campaign has been highlighting — most notably, that he passed a massive tax cut for the rich at the same time as he urged the Supreme Court to take health care away from 30 million people. It could gain Biden some critical marginal support to highlight the story as part of his larger narrative about Trump’s failures. And whether or not it ultimately affects the election, it’s something as many voters as possible should know about.

The meta-problem with the Savvy take in this instance is that if nothing in Trump’s tax returns could possibly be damaging why would he have spent years moving heaven and Earth to stop anyone from seeing them?

This is also an important point. Claims that “everyone knows this already” are just flat-out false; a lot of people still believe that Trump character on The Apprentice is real, and when people find out that he’s in fact a failson heir it makes people think less of him on net. Marginal voters are almost by definition low-information voters.

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