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5 things that could still go wrong for Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at Futuramic Tool & Engineering in Warren, Michigan August 11, 2016.
Chris Keane | Reuters
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at Futuramic Tool & Engineering in Warren, Michigan August 11, 2016.

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill.

Hillary Clinton shouldn't start preparing her inaugural address just yet.

There are plenty of things that could trip up her campaign between now and Election Day, even if polls increasingly suggest she is on track to beat Donald Trump in a landslide.

Clinton has a significant advantage in recent polls both nationally and across battleground states. New polls from NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist on Friday put her in a dominant position in states that would be close in a normal election year. In Virginia and Colorado, for instance, Clinton led by 13 and 14 points, respectively.

But those polls came after a brutal stretch for Trump, and the race could tighten significantly heading into the fall.

Still, given the electoral map, Trump probably needs some larger development to change the trajectory of the race. Here are five scenarios that could improve Trump's chances.

A debate disaster

The three presidential debates offer Trump his biggest chance to reset the race.

Clinton cannot win the expectations game in advance of the first clash, which will be held at Hofstra University on September 26. The former Secretary of State is a formidable debater who has been in public life for a quarter-century, and she is going up against a man who has never run for office before. Anything less than a clear-cut win for her is likely to be seen as a positive for Trump.

There are other dangers on the debate stage as well. If Trump were to debate with more substance and less bluster than anticipated, he might be able to win back some of the voters who have turned against him.

Clinton, for all her strengths, could also make a faux pas that becomes a big story.

Back in late 2007, an infamously convoluted answer she gave in a debate about whether she supported issuing driving licenses to illegal immigrants provided then-Sen. Barack Obama with one of his first big openings against her.

Clinton's comment this spring that she was "going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" came in a town hall meeting rather than a debate. But it was an example of the kind of foot-in-mouth gaffe that could cost her.

A hacking embarrassment

The Democratic Party has already been shaken by hacks this year.

Leaked Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails showed staffers favoring Clinton over primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), forcing DNC chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) to step down at the end of the party's national convention last month.

There appears to be more where that came from. A New York Times report last week said that the cyberattack, which U.S. intelligences agencies believe was perpetrated by Russians, "was bigger than it first appeared and breached the private email accounts of more than 100 party officials and groups."

If that's true, there could be more trouble to come for Clinton. The hacked emails from the DNC were made public via WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange told the British TV network ITV in June, "We do see [Clinton] as a bit of a problem."

Given that trustworthiness is Clinton's biggest weak spot in polls — a Washington Post/ABC News poll this month indicated that only 38 percent of adults believe her to be honest and trustworthy, while 59 percent do not — any emails that cast doubt on her public positions could be especially damaging.

Clinton voters stay home

The nightmare scenario for Democrats: Clinton heads into Election Day confident of victory, only for liberals to stay home while Trump benefits from an unexpected surge among his white, working-class base.

There are some warning signs for Clinton. During her primary struggle with Sanders, she struggled mightily with younger voters. She seems ill positioned to present herself as an agent of change in a year when the electorate is upset with the status quo.

In the Washington Post/ABC poll referenced above, 57 percent of respondents declared themselves "dissatisfied" with the choice of Clinton or Trump as their next president. When that result was broken down by ideology, the percentage of liberals who felt that way (58 percent) was a fraction larger than among conservatives (55 percent).

The other complication lies in the candidacies of the Green Party's Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson.

Stein has not shown the capacity to peel away Democratic voters in large numbers — she averages just 3 percent in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

Johnson, however, is running more strongly, at around 8 percent. Contrary to what might be expected, given that Johnson is a former Republican, he appears to be hurting Clinton as much as Trump. Though the evidence is not conclusive, her lead in four-horse-race polls tends to be slightly smaller than in a one-on-one match-up with Trump.

Clinton Foundation revelations

Many Republicans lament that Trump's capacity for controversy has allowed Clinton to skate past questions about her behavior in office.

Early last week, the State Department released emails that showed a questionable overlap between Clinton's work as secretary of State and the foundation that bears her family name.

In one email, Doug Band of the Clinton Global Initiative — and a close aide to former President Bill Clinton — communicated with Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin, apparently looking for a State Department job for an unnamed person. In another email, Band and Abedin appeared to cooperate to try to connect a billionaire donor to the foundation with a former U.S. ambassador to Libya.

The Clinton campaign has denied any wrongdoing, arguing that Band was reaching out to Abedin in his role as Bill Clinton's personal aide, not under the auspices of the foundation. The former ambassador, Jeffrey Feltman, has also said he never met or spoke with the donor, Gilbert Chagoury.

Those revelations were politically awkward rather than damning. But if any more grave evidence were to make its way into the public arena, that could damage Hillary Clinton badly.

A terrorist attack

Any attack on the U.S. homeland would undoubtedly have an impact on the presidential race.

During the early days of the Republican primary campaign, Trump's polling numbers rose sharply in the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

But he also drew criticism for his reaction to the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead in June. A tweet sent in the aftermath, in which Trump wrote that he appreciated "the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism," generated backlash.

Still, Trump has polled respectably on the question of which candidate voters trust to combat terrorism — he led by 7 percentage points on that measure in a Bloomberg poll earlier this month.

The bottom line is that any kind of unforeseen news event in the final stretch of the campaign could change the race. It's conceivable that Trump would benefit, though nothing is guaranteed.

Commentary by Niall Stanage, associate editor of The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @NiallStanage.

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