Don’t think of the 2016 presidential election as a popularity contest. Think of it as a race to see who the American electorate detests slightly less.
These days, there’s a lot of excitement in Trumpland. Since March, the billionaire has picked up 11 points in The Washington Post-ABC News national poll, nudging him slightly ahead of Hillary Clinton with a 46-44 percent lead. In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll we find a similar statistical tie, with Clinton leading by three points, 46-43 percent. Most polls show a predictable partisan split.
Trump is “surging,” they say.
Now, I’m not sure why we keep treating national polls with such deference. For one thing, it’s way too early. Obama, for instance, was leading McCain by a couple of points in April 2008 in the same NBC/WSJ poll. For another, as liberal columnist Juan Williams pointed out, it’s far more informative to take a state-by-state look at polls, where we see just how difficult it’ll probably be for the presumptive GOP nominee to win the general.
Still, naturally, it’s better to gain in the polls than not.
The relative closeness of the race might come as somewhat of a surprise to those who’ve seen the unprecedented antagonism of the GOP primaries, Trump’s general obnoxiousness, and ongoing efforts by intrepid conservatives to mount a third-party candidacy. It shouldn’t.
Although I’m still skeptical Trump will remain competitive, it’s not inconceivable that voters who loathe the political class with this much vigor may slap around conventional wisdom for a little bit longer. There are plenty of pundits warning Democrats not to underestimate Trump’s crossover appeal to independents, etc., but perhaps Democrats are just seriously overestimating Hillary’s appeal.
Both candidates are disliked “or even hated” by around six in 10 Americans, according to a new NBC News/SurveyMonkey tracking poll. According to the NBC/WSJ poll, more than of half of registered voters claim their vote is mostly about opposing the other candidate. In a Washington Post-ABC News survey and a new CBS/New York Times poll, both candidates are on their way to unfavorables approaching the 60 percent territory. Trump’s is a bit higher than Hillary’s.
Thanks to Hillary, Trump’s unification of the GOP is happening despite the candidate’s best efforts. Anecdotally speaking, the rationalization I hear most from conservatives who now begrudgingly back the billionaire has nothing to do with the candidate’s policy positions, outlook, or temperament. It’s generally little more than a deep detestation of Clinton, whom conservatives believe must be stopped for the good of the country. The thought of her presidency is unpalatable for most Republicans in a way that even an Obama term wasn’t. President Obama’s favorability numbers in 2008 and 2012 were far better.
Hillary rouses a special kind of disdain. So does Trump, who carries around historically low favorability numbers among female, black, Hispanic, and Asian voters. But we shouldn’t forget that a chunk of those numbers are already baked into the electoral cake for Republicans. The GOP candidate was going to lose those groups anyway, even if a soft-spoken establishmentarian had won the primary. Obama, for instance, won 73 percent of Asian-Americans in 2012. How many will Hillary win? 75? Right now, 68 percent have a favorable view of her. The numbers may be similar, but they are unlikely to be much worse.
Don’t get me wrong, Trump will almost certainly exacerbate the GOP’s minority problem in the long run and ensure that it’s a generational issue. But let’s put it this way: although it’s true that all the ugly things Democrats usually say about Republican candidates might actually be true this cycle, it doesn’t look like it will shake up the traditional dynamics of a partisan presidential election in the short term. The only way it seems that Trump will suffer is if his own party turns on him (fingers crossed).
This is mostly due to the fact that Hillary is a galvanizing force for conservatives like few others.
Is she the same for liberals? She does not possess the charisma of Obama. Nor the idealism. Her campaign is predicated on a single unbreakable promise: she will do whatever it takes to be president. She is a woman, yes. She will promise to protect Obama’s legacy — a collection of policies that half the country still doesn’t like. No one trusts her to keep her word. She is ethically compromised. The unfolding Terry McAuliffe mess — and the entire decade of the 90s, to think of it — should remind us that the Clintons are always on the brink of a scandal.
These are not things that will make her any more popular. (All of these things, incidentally, also make good fodder for the #NeverTrump argument that conservatives should sit this one out. An ethically compromised, unpopular, unreliable liberal presidency would almost certainly reanimate conservatism.)
It’s early. A lot of things can disrupt these dynamics. Perhaps it will be the Libertarian or third-party candidates, although at this point Libertarian Gary Johnson, who is polling at 10 percent in a number of polls, is drawing more from Clinton than he is from Trump. As it stands now, the luckiest thing that’s happened to candidate Trump might be Hillary.