WASHINGTON • After Donald Trump virtually clinched the Republican presidential nomination, after Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton stumbled and lost Indiana near her party’s finish line, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman tweeted this of Americans’ presidential choices in November: “This will be an unpopularity contest.”
In the modern era of polling, Clinton would be the least liked major party nominee if it were not for Trump, who has large swaths of the electorate — featuring Hispanics and women — rating him unfavorably, sometimes by 3-1 or more.
Clinton-Trump would be a “you don’t have to say you love me” election, a test of the theory of relative negativity.
In a late April USA Today-Suffolk University poll of 1,000 voters, only 28 percent said they had a favorable view of Trump, while only 37 percent said the same of Clinton. A stark 61 percent held an unfavorable view of Trump, and 54 percent of Clinton (margin of error: plus or minus 3 percentage points).
So how did we get to this, and what does it portend for a Trump-Clinton campaign that political analysts — many of whom have been dead wrong about Trump from the beginning — predict will begin with a nasty tone and end with an even nastier one?
Judging by what fellow Republicans are saying about Trump, the Republican Party unity that he called for after knocking Ted Cruz out of the race in Indiana on Tuesday may be as likely as a Trump apology tour for all the things he has said to upset so many people.
Trump had begun Tuesday with vague inferences to a tabloid story connecting Cruz’s father with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Trump ended it by calling Cruz tough and smart, “one hell of a competitor.” Before bowing out, Cruz had called Trump a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” So much for quick unity.
But Trump is such a different political animal that delayed unification may not hurt him like it would a conventional politician.
• Trump has run a scorched-earth campaign against the Republican and Democratic parties, against anything associated with politics as usual. Trump-Clinton is not a starkly ideological choice as much as one between a scarred, cautious politician (Clinton) who will campaign as a survivor of the system that exists, vs. the billionaire who mocks political correctness and wants to blow the whole system up, the Republican hierarchy included.
What many miss in the analysis of Trump is that his supporters are as upset at the Republicans in Congress for ineffectiveness as they are at President Barack Obama for executive overreach.
In that regard, Trump is getting tangential, if unintentional, help from Clinton’s challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who beat Clinton in Indiana on Tuesday and vows to contest the nomination until the late July convention in Philadelphia. Sanders rails against a Democratic nominating process that he says is stacked toward big money and entrenched political influence.
“The fact that Trump and Sanders both have used the same term, that the elections are ‘rigged,’ is really divisive, and I don’t think people realize that,” said Elizabeth Dudash-Buskirk, a communications professor at Missouri State University. “It doesn’t just mean that they are outsiders, it means that they don’t believe in a system” that would elect Clinton, who has been involved in national politics for 25 years.
“This is a different world we are dealing with,” Dudash-Buskirk said.
• Favorable ratings can be fickle and fleeting. George Bush had about as close to universal approval ratings a president of the republic can get after the first Iraq War and lost the White House a little over two years later.
Does it matter that Clinton’s negatives are embedded in events that have transpired over three decades, and that she has gone up and down in favorable ratings, depending on the latest self-inflicted wounds or Republican attacks on her judgment and truthfulness?
“Hillary has been forgiven — what, six, seven, eight, 12, 13 times?” Dudash-Buskirk said. “Donald Trump has not.”
Does it matter that Trump’s high negatives are built on fresher events, on often outrageous comments his core supporters say are part of storming the gates, but his critics see as bigoted, dangerous or delusional? And that they are made by a novice to the political stage, more accustomed to backroom business brawling or the fake-firings on theatrical TV, than any decorum of the public stump?
And that Trump now has six months to show general election voters what he’d look like as president, hoping to counter the lying narcissist image portrayed by his chief Republican rival?
One constant of 2016: Prognostications have been routinely rendered useless by the time the next big campaign moment comes along. And countless of those are yet to come.