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Contortions of campaign 2016 humble journalists and whipsaw Hillary

Hillary sings!
(David Horsey/LA Times)

Rolling Stone's politics writer Matt Taibbi is a worthy heir to the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. While Thompson was the counter-culture's avenging angel on acid, Mr. Taibbi is far more grounded. Thompson's decimating portrayals of politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were wildly entertaining, but one often wondered if they were connected to real events or were contorted flights of drug-fueled imagination. With Mr. Taibbi, there's no doubt that his flair for colorful description of the political madhouse is matched by solid reporting.

Still, Mr. Taibbi may not be any more prescient than the campaign reporters whose prose is far more pedestrian. In the current issue of Rolling Stone, Mr. Taibbi details the fumbling, disaster-skirting progress of Donald Trump's campaign and pretty much declares the election over.Mr. Trump, Mr. Taibbi writes, won the primaries by "acting like a drunken stock broker who fell off the bar into a presidential race." But, in Mr. Taibbi's analysis, ever since Mr. Trump started using a teleprompter, raising money, courting nonwhite voters and acting more presidential, he has struggled.

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"Now he's trying to win, and he's in free-fall," Mr. Taibbi declares. "Polls show he will lose to one of the most unpopular Democratic nominees ever."

Probably that made sense when Mr. Taibbi wrote his piece, but he should have reminded himself that campaign 2016 twerks in a new direction every five minutes the multi-tentacled beast that is the Trump campaign simply cannot be fit inside the bucket of conventional politics. Mr. Trump slips into sucking quicksand and somehow always finds a way to turn it into a beach party for himself and his stalwart band of "deplorables."

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A solid 40 percent of American voters are superglued to Mr. Trump's side and will not pry themselves away, no matter where he leads them. Now, 40 percent is not a winning margin, but it is a strong safety net for his high wire act. And even though his opponent has all the money in the world, an organized campaign in every state and the best-known surrogates in politics -- including the president and vice president of the United States -- she keeps slipping back into the low 40s herself. As a result, there remains the real possibility that the careening pendulum of public opinion may yet swing toward Mr. Trump.

Hillary Clinton has turned out to be a hugely problematic candidate for Democrats. She is the most famous woman in the world with a great résumé and a textbook campaign plan, but she has been savaged and scarred by decades of relentless criticism. It may be grossly unfair, but the caricature of "lyin' Hillary" is lodged in the public imagination and cannot be budged. And each time she takes a step to move beyond that image, she stumbles into some mistake or miscue that reinforces it.

Blaming Ms. Clinton for her inability to put more distance between herself and Mr. Trump, though, may be yet another exercise in conventional wisdom. It could be that something bigger than the candidates is the driving force in the campaign of 2016. The nation's longstanding partisan divide has deepened. It is now a chasm between two entirely different versions of reality, a rift so wide that a conventional-thinking candidate like Hillary Clinton cannot possibly cross.

And perhaps that is why this, the most bizarre, unpredictable campaign in memory, has been so humbling for journalists, even for someone as creative and competent as Matt Taibbi. Maybe only someone as mad and manic as Hunter S. Thompson could wrap his mind around a political phenomenon this strange.

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Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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