A presidential campaign that has already set new marks for anger, negativity and bitterness sank deeper into the wrack this week, with more than three weeks to go before the final votes are cast.
Little doubt remains about the eventual outcome, but the path from here to the end is shrouded by a pall of smoke as Donald Trump seeks to burn down the house.
Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in the presidential campaign and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
Trump walks into a trap
In the last 100 years, seven presidential candidates have received less than 41% of the popular vote. The list, from James M. Cox in 1920 to Walter F. Mondale in 1984, constitutes a catalog of political failure.
Trump currently sits right at 41% in the polling averages, and those polls do not yet reflect the effect of this week's accounts by at least four women who say he assaulted them.
Few presidential candidates have been through as damaging a stretch as Trump has in the last two and a half weeks — nearly all as a result of his own acts. First came his faltering performance at the first debate, followed by a week spent feuding with a former Miss Universe, then the now-famous video in which he talked of being able to get away with groping women because of his celebrity.
Sunday, at the second presidential debate, Anderson Cooper asked Trump if he actually had assaulted women as he had bragged. Seemingly, everyone but Trump could hear the sound of a trap being set.
Heedlessly, Trump walked into it, insisting that he never had done what he had boasted of. As Seema Mehta reported, at least five women said his denial was more than they could take. In separate accounts given to the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Palm Beach Post and People magazine, the women provided vivid accounts of abusive behavior on Trump's part.
Continuing the line he pushed in the second debate, Trump has sought to highlight accusations of sexual misconduct leveled by women against Bill Clinton.
As a political tactic, the effort faces three big problems. First, Trump is asking voters to believe that all allegations against Clinton are true, even as he has insisted that all the women who have accused him are liars. Second, as Evan Halper and Chris Megerian reported, most of the women's accusations have little to do with Hillary Clinton. Finally, for most voters, the Clinton scandals are old information, already baked into their views.
None of that appears to have deterred Trump from waging a campaign that has now become almost entirely one of denunciation. He crystallized the approach Thursday in a speech in which he described his opposition as a corrupt system in which "international banks" conspire with U.S. political figures to steal the future from hard-working Americans.
To maintain their hold on power, he declared, "they will lie, lie, lie, and then again they will do worse than that. They will do whatever is necessary. The Clintons are criminals, remember that. They're criminals."
Few Republicans outside Trump's campaign see much chance that approach will expand Trump's vote and take him out of the company of Alf Landon, George McGovern, Barry Goldwater and the others on the 41% and under list. The possibility that he could depress Democratic turnout so much that his core supporters would outnumber Clinton's seems equally far-fetched.
But as polls show Trump's lead falling to within the margin of error in such solidly Republican states as Utah and Texas, few think Trump is listening.
"I do not think it's smart for Donald Trump to get sucked in on these personality fights, and he doesn't seem to be able to resist it," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
GOP split threatens congressional control
The week began, as Mark Z. Barabak and Lisa Mascaro reported, with Speaker Paul Ryan telling members of the House GOP caucus that he would no longer campaign for Trump, drawing heated complaints from some House conservatives.
One of the few prominent elected Republicans who has remained stalwart behind Trump, despite rumored personal reservations, was his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. As other Republicans fled, Pence doubled down, Noah Bierman reported.
Other Republicans, as Mascaro explained, find themselves in a terrible bind. GOP members from heavily Republican areas fear alienating the many Trump supporters in their districts. Those in swing districts — and senators who must run in swing states — fear Trump will drag them down. To win, Republicans in closely contested races need a presidential level turnout from both factions of the party. Amid Trump's plunge, that now seems in question.
GOP control of the House still seems more likely than not — Democrats would need to sweep almost every possible swing seat to regain a majority — but a significant Democratic gain now seems probable, and Republican control of the Senate is badly at risk.
The party's problems are writ large in North Carolina, Mascaro found, where overreach by the conservative Republican governor and legislature, coupled with Trump's unpopularity, has put Republican candidates on the defensive up and down the ballot.
Clinton is on the verge of becoming the nation's first female president, but she's hardly the Democrats' favorite female political figure. Right now, that title almost certainly would go to First Lady Michelle
For many Democrats, Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention was the week's emotional high point. Thursday, she delivered an encore that, as Evan Halper wrote, may have created a defining moment of the presidential campaign.
"I can't believe I am saying that a candidate for president of the United States has actually bragged about sexually assaulting women," Obama said. "I can't stop thinking about this," she added. "It has shaken me to my core in a way I couldn't have predicted."
For the Clinton campaign, the first lady's task — and President Obama's as well — is to boost the enthusiasm of the voters who played such a big part in putting them in the White House — minorities and young voters.
As Mark Barabak found in Florida, where millennials now outnumber senior citizens, apathy is Clinton's biggest opponent. The millennial vote has the potential to tip Florida firmly into the Democratic column, Barabak wrote, but the necessary turnout to make that happen remains uncertain.
Watch with us on Wednesday
The final debate of the campaign is scheduled for Wednesday night. The topics are set to include immigration and the Supreme Court. Our reporters will be there in Las Vegas. We'll have fact checks, analyses, our scorecard of the rounds, video highlights and much more. Follow it all with us.
And if you're in Los Angeles, join Times staffers at a watch party at The Ace Hotel. Details here: latimes.com/debatewatchspectacular.
Don't forget the Electoral College
We're updating our interactive electoral map once again. Already, Clinton leads in more than enough states to secure the White House. Check back to see how that changes this weekend.
Winning requires 270 electoral votes. How to get there? The map lets you play political strategist and try out as many scenarios as you like.
Follow our tracking poll
And, no, one 19-year-old Trump supporter probably isn't distorting the polling averages all by himself.
Questions about Trump, Clinton? We've got answers
Where they stand on issues, what they've done in their lives, their successes, their failures, what their presidencies might look like: We've been writing about Clinton and Trump for years, and we've pulled the best of that content together to make finding what you want to know easier. So check out All Things Trump and All Things Clinton.
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