We may be just this screwed: Donald Trump has an easier path to victory than you think

Trump and Clinton share very high negatives. Hillary's may end up being harder to turn around

Published May 29, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Ted S. Warren)
Donald Trump (AP/Ted S. Warren)

As the 2016 presidential primaries got underway, there seemed to be several incontrovertible truths: Hillary Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, and Donald Trump stood no chance. Yet, here we are six months before the election, and Trump has seized the Republican nomination while Clinton is still working to box out Bernie Sanders’ insurgency (without losing his voters, who it turns out, may peel off after all).

Nonetheless, the prevailing narrative is that while there is now a chance that Trump could actually win in November, it’s basically Hillary Clinton’s election to lose. Pundits focus on “fundamentals,” like Hillary’s superior fundraising, analytics, or ground game; however, these haven’t proven terribly predictive this cycle. And by focusing on conventional elements, analysts seem to be overlooking novel dynamics which are likely more important—specifically, the public’s persistent and negative perception of Hillary Clinton, the incumbency handicap, and a phenomenon I call “negative intersectionality.”

Change You Can Believe In

Both Trump and Clinton hold historically unprecedented unfavorable ratings among likely voters. Of the two, Clinton has held a slight edge—however, the gap between them has been rapidly closing. And here’s the kicker: While it is true that the public is very familiar with both Trump and Clinton due to their decades-long careers in public life, Trump has been in the limelight primarily as a businessman and entertainer. People are just now discovering “Trump the politician”—and as a result, their views on Trump as a politician are malleable. The Clinton team views this as an opportunity, and are attempting to define him before he gets a chance to define himself. However, the flip side is that while Trump’s numbers are currently low, there is a real opportunity for him to radically change public perception for the better. And he has tasked Paul Manafort with this responsibility—a man who, after orchestrating Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories, went on to build a highly successful career rehabilitating the image of dictators and strongmen. He's made for this job. Expect Trump's numbers to rise.

Hillary’s numbers are unlikely to follow the same trajectory—because not only do people know her well, but they know her specifically as a politician. It is precisely her perceived cynicism and duplicity as a politician that drive her unfavorable rating. Public opinion of Clinton has been on a steady decline since December 2012, and a brutal, negative campaign is unlikely to shift the numbers in her favor. In other words, Clinton will have a much harder time turning around her bad image than Trump.

As an example, consider Trump’s “policy surrealism”: by the normal rules of the game, it should hurt him that he is constantly changing his mind, that he insists anything he says prior to the election should just be thought of as a “suggestion” rather than a position, etc. Why doesn’t this bother voters? Because his primary rival is Hillary Clinton.

Clinton has been known to “evolve” frequently and dramatically as well. But the difference between them is that Hillary has very successfully framed herself as a policy wonk, and with the assistance of her large team of professional advisors, each new position she strikes is accompanied by a host of highly polished (if often unrealistic) policy proposals. However, this professionalism often proves as much of a curse as an asset: When Trump flip-flops, it seems like he is genuinely trying to work through these issues—he straightforwardly tells you what he feels at the moment, and changes his mind as he learns more, thinks more, etc. Clinton, on the other hand, is a veteran politician—as she herself constantly underscores—with a tightly controlled message. As a result, her position shifts seem more like cynical pandering. That is, in a sense, Trump’s evolutions actually make him seem more honest, while Clinton’s have the opposite effect.

It's somewhat unfair, because of course there is a clear element of pandering in Trump's evolutions, and at least some of Clinton's policy shifts may be the product of sincere changes in perspective, new information, more life-experience, changing circumstances, etc. But fair or not, this does seem to be the emerging dynamic of the race.

Worse still, this avowed expertise, when paired with her modest and highly technical proposals, positions her as the consummate insider in an election cycle where people across the political spectrum seem hungry for an anti-establishment revolutionary. And while the Clinton campaign is still trying to figure out how to best define Trump (most recently insisting that he is not a “normal” candidate, failing to understand that many voters will see this as a positive), her interlocutor has no such problems: “Crooked Hillary” is simple but effective, hitting her right where she’s weakest.

A Referendum on Obama’s Administration and Bill Clinton’s

Historically speaking, it is rare that a party that completed two terms in the Oval Office manages to win a third. Granted, Obama has been a transformational president, and his popularity remains high. However, the problem facing Hillary is that she’s not only going to be held to account for the failures and shortcomings of the Obama administration, but also of her husband’s tenure in office.

Consider: Despite Hillary Clinton’s unparalleled credentials, her historic potential as the first female POTUS, her early and nearly insurmountable delegate lead, and the near-unanimous and robust support from the Democratic Party establishment throughout—she is having trouble “closing the deal” for the nomination.

This is because, in many ways, the Democratic primary has been a referendum on Bill Clinton’s tenure—and many of his signature achievements, championed by Hillary Clinton at the time, don’t look so great in retrospect. From NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Wall Street deregulation, welfare reform, DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—and of course, the infamous crime bills—despite Bill Clinton’s success at restoring the Democratic Party to national prominence, primary voters have taken an increasingly critical view of his legacy. This effect will be even more pronounced among Independent and Republican voters.

Trump recognizes the opportunity here, and has already demonstrated an intention to hammer Hillary Clinton not only on her support of NAFTA—but to even undermine her feminist narratives by highlighting the genuinely disturbing sexual assault accusations against Bill Clinton, and the role that Hillary Clinton played in attempting to discredit and silence alleged victims. Again, in the current cultural and historical moment, voters seem unlikely to provide the same benefit of doubt that was afforded the Clintons in the '90s.

And so the challenge Hillary Clinton faces is somewhat unprecedented: Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the state of affairs in this country. To the extent that they blame Obama for their problems, this hurts Hillary. To the extent that they blame Bill Clinton for their problems, this hurts Hillary. And unfortunately, Hillary Clinton was even complicit in many of the worst decisions of the intervening Bush administration--for instance, playing a pivotal role in marshaling support for the ill-conceived U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In short, the incumbency handicap, which would be significant for virtually any Democrat in 2016, will be particularly pronounced against Hillary Clinton.

Losing the Culture Wars

Many Trump supporters may well be racist, xenophobic or misogynistic—but if the Democrats think that it will be a winning strategy to sling these kinds of labels at the Donald, then they are going to be in for a nasty surprise in November.

For one thing, Trump’s parochialism resonates with many more Americans than the mainstream media likes to believe or acknowledge (although their obsessive coverage of the Donald is an implicit recognition of this reality). This is true across the board: male and female, young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, highly-intelligent or not, Democrat or Republican (this is particularly true for his anti-Muslim proposals). And his nationalistic economic and foreign policy message resonates even more broadly: a majority of Americans support his “America-first” approach. So if the Clinton camp attempts to disparage people who hold these kinds of views as ignorant and bigoted, they are going to be alienating far more voters than they can likely afford.

Exacerbating this trend is something I call “negative intersectionality”: progressives have done a great job framing racial inequality, feminism and LGBTQ rights as part of the same basic struggle. However, this association works both ways. Accusations of misogyny, for instance, are often heard in the context of a fundamentally anti-white, anti-Christian culture war—a zero-sum campaign waged against ordinary hard-working Americans by condescending and politically correct liberal elites. As a result, many conservative white women who may be disturbed by Trump’s remarks would simultaneously feel antipathy toward liberals when they encounter a pro-Clinton ad that highlights those comments. Some may even come to view Trump more sympathetically if Democrats attempt to paint him as anti-woman or anti-minority.

If Clinton thinks she can criticize Trump as a sexist without stirring up this broader resentment against liberals, she is in for a rude awakening. If she thinks there’s an alternative path to victory by largely writing off the white vote and leaning more heavily on the support of minorities, she’s probably wrong about that too: Clinton would simultaneously need massive turnout and near-unanimous support from minority groups to compensate for decreased support among white Americans. However, turnout has been low among Democrats in the primary. Moreover, Trump seems to be performing surprisingly well among minorities:

Mitt Romney only garnered 6 percent of the black vote in 2012. However, this election is shaping up to be more competitive: nearly one-tenth of African-Americans view the Donald positively, with another 15 percent undecided. If even half of the latter group ultimately sides with Trump, or simply stays home on Election Day, Clinton loses. For her to win, African-American participation needs to at least match 2012 turnout, and Clinton must win roughly 90 percent of the black vote. Right now, it’s looking like she might fail on both counts.

Perhaps more shocking: despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric, nearly one-quarter of Hispanics support Trump, with another 15 percent undecided—putting him on pace to possibly exceed Romney’s 2012 share (27 percent).

One reason to suspect these dynamics might hold: positive intersectionality. Trump’s ambivalence on gay marriage, his opposition to the so-called “Bathroom Bills” in North Carolina and elsewhere, his consistent praise for Planned Parenthood, his commitment to loosening the Republican platform on abortion, and his openness to legalizing marijuana (which would have a huge and positive impact on people of color)—these will counteract depictions of him as a xenophobe or bigot among those who view these struggles as interconnected. In fact, Trump’s unorthodox positions, when paired with the public’s record distrust of mainstream media, may lead many to believe he is being unfairly maligned in the press.

The Straight and Narrow

In short, contrary to prevailing narratives, the deck seems to be stacked against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of course, there’s always the hope that Trump could implode. But so far he has demonstrated an amazing ability to lean into gaffes and controversies, and to control the terms of debate. And with his primary buttoned up, Trump is softening and moderating his “suggestions” for the general electorate—and again, he is empowered to make radical shifts in a way his opponent is not.

More broadly, it would be a strategic blunder for Clinton to make her campaign a referendum on Trump: negative partisanship elections tend to favor Republicans. This is because Democrats are heavily dependent on high turnout from irregular voters in order to win national contests. However, when these voters are asked to choose between the “lesser of two evils,” they tend to just stay home. If this happens in November, Clinton loses.

That is, anti-Trump animus is unlikely to win Hillary Clinton the White House. Instead, she will need to present a positive alternative vision--one that does not alienate or condescend “traditional” constituents, but which nonetheless manages to drive large numbers of irregular voters to the polls; one which can appeal across the aisle, while simultaneously invigorating her base. There is virtually no room for error--and unfortunately, Clinton hasn’t demonstrated herself to be the kind of candidate who can pull it off.

Start preparing your move to Canada now; you’ll want to beat the rush.

By Musa al-Gharbi

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website: musaalgharbi.com

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