The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yes, Clinton and Trump are both viewed negatively. But that’s a lot worse for Trump.

(AFP photo/Getty Images)


The pundit hand-wringing has begun: The general election is going to be a bloodbath in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton try to tear each other apart, instead of engaging in a civil discussion about issues (which of course is usually what American politics is about — not). Central to this worry is the idea that both Trump and Clinton start out with very high negatives.

And that’s true. But before we get too carried away with this equivalence, it’s worth noting that one candidate’s negatives are not like the other’s. This is central to Dem strategists’ understanding of the brawl that’s about to unfold, and it’s not clear Trump — or Republicans — will have an answer to it.

Today’s New York Times has an interesting piece digging into what the two candidates’ negatives mean, and how each side is preparing for the general election. Buried in the piece is this crucial bit of reporting about the Dem assault on Trump that is about to start:

[Trump’s] effort to broaden support will soon face a barrage of negative television and web ads from a super PAC backing Mrs. Clinton, which promises much tougher criticism than Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals delivered.
“It would be a huge mistake to think we’ve had a real-world litigation of any of these criticisms of Trump,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster for the group, Priorities USA Action….
“In some ways, Hillary’s negatives are already baked in the cake, and that is simply not the case with Trump,” Mr. Garin said. “Virtually all of Trump’s negatives are the product of his bizarre conduct, as opposed to any specific set of facts people have at their command about his record or what the course of a Trump presidency is likely to be.”

This is a useful glimpse into the Democrats’ strategic thinking that I have not seen expressed in quite this way anywhere else. Now, to be clear, it is not certain that this dynamic will play in Democrats’ favor. As I reported yesterday, Dem focus groups show that swing voters are fully prepared to believe that Trump is a risky and divisive figure. But they are not yet prepared to believe the Dem argument that Trump’s policies would benefit the rich. This could be a problem, since Dems will need to press the argument that Trump’s approach to the economy — his tax policies would deliver a massive windfall to the rich and blow a huge hole in the deficit, and his trade policies could start trade wars — is as reckless and crazy as everything else about him.

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Right now, those Dem focus groups reveal, swing voters appear uncertain about Trump’s true agenda. And they view Trump’s negatives mostly through the prism of his bombastic personality — at least, as it’s been defined by his antics on the stump for the last year. Perhaps Trump can fill in that agenda in a way that softens his candidacy (though that doesn’t seem that likely).

Beyond policy, though, this dynamic also creates an opportunity for Dems against Trump — one that may not exist against Clinton. She has been subjected to intense scrutiny for over two decades. Note that Trump’s attacks on her are largely rehashes: He’s going after Bill Clinton’s affairs and Hillary Clinton’s alleged role in “enabling” them — reaching back to the 1990s. He’s also hitting her on Benghazi and her emails, both of which have been worked over for months or years. (Yes, the email probe could still produce seriously damaging revelations, and if that happens, all bets are off, but that looks increasingly unlikely.) While it’s possible that a renewed focus on all these things could damage Clinton further, it’s more likely that they will accomplish little, because they don’t represent new information.

By contrast, we simply don’t know yet what is out there in the record on Trump. Republicans were caught off guard by his rise, only began seriously digging into his record after it was too late, and are now preoccupied with limiting the damage his candidacy may do to the party. Democrats, meanwhile, have been digging for many months — one Dem opposition researcher has estimated that approximately 80 percent of negative stuff out there on Trump has yet to surface publicly — and they continue to do so. Which means it’s possible that Trump’s negatives have more room to grow (as preposterous as that might seem) than Clinton’s do.

None of this guarantees anything, of course. It is on Dems to prove that this dynamic will really play in their favor: We will know soon enough whether they actually have the goods from his record to further damage his candidacy. Nor is this meant to downplay the challenges Clinton faces. Her campaign faces an important question right now: What can it do to create a more positive storyline about her for the general election audience, even as she remains mired in the battle with Bernie Sanders? But that’s a topic for another post.

In an interview with CBS News' "Face the Nation," Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton explains what she means when she says Republican rival Donald Trump is (Video: Reuters)


* BERNIE WINS WEST VIRGINIA, BUT DELEGATE MATH IS UNCHANGED: Bernie Sanders bested Hillary Clinton by 51-36 in West Virginia, but he ended up winning only five more delegates than Clinton did: He added 16, while she added 11.

The current delegate math: Clinton leads among pledged delegates by 1,716 to 1,430. With super-delegates, it’s 2,239 to 1,469. Winning requires 2,383. It’s a reminder that the proportional allocation of delegates continues to make it almost impossible for Sanders to catch up.

* HILLARY IS STILL STUCK IN THE PRIMARIES: Politico observes that as long as Sanders keeps winning, Clinton will be forced to fight a two-front war:

Clinton may have turned her focus to presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, but at the same time her campaign is forced to continue fighting a rear-guard action against Bernie Sanders, who shows no sign of surrender….As long as Sanders continues to roll up wins, there’s little incentive for him to leave the race, making it likely she’ll have to weather three more weeks of nicks and bruises that could hand Trump lines of attack.

It’s a problem for her, but I’m not sure how much this will matter long-term, as long as Sanders ultimately does all he can to swing his constituency behind her (which he is likely to do).

* TIGHT SENATE RACES IN KEY SWING STATES: New Quinnipiac polls find that two top Senate races are very tight. GOP Senator Rob Portman is locked in a dead heat with challenger Ted Strickland of Ohio, 42-43. GOP Senator Pat Toomey and Dem challenger Katie McGinty poll at 45-44 in Pennsylvania.

Democrats are likely to benefit from a presidential year turnout in these states, which were carried by Obama twice. Their outcome will help determine who controls the Senate next year: Dems need five seats to regain the majority, and four if they win the White House.

* COULD COURT BATTLE PUT GOP MAJORITY AT RISK? Note this tidbit from the new Quinnipiac poll about Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey race and Merrick Garland:

Pennsylvania voters approve 52-29 percent of Judge Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and say 58-37 percent that the Senate should consider the nomination….Because Toomey wants to wait for the next president to make a Supreme Court nomination, 30 percent of voters are less likely to vote for him, while 18 percent are more likely to support him and 51 percent say this will not affect their vote.

If more polling like this comes back to these Senators, it’s possible they may ask Mitch McConnell to relent. Of course, that would make the base very, very angry, so he very well may not: Hence the trap this creates for Republicans.

* TRUMP WON’T RELEASE TAX RETURNS: The Donald tells the Associated Press that it isn’t going to happen:

Despite pressure, the billionaire businessman also does not expect to release his tax returns before the November election. “There’s nothing to learn from them,” Trump told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. He’s cited an ongoing audit of his finances as the main reason for withholding the information, and also has said he doesn’t believe voters are interested.

Something tells me Democrats will do all they can to make voters interested. Didn’t they do that to great effect against Mitt Romney only four years ago?

* CLINTON CAMP TARGETS SUBURBAN WOMEN: CNN identifies a key facet of the Clinton campaign’s strategy against Trump:

Clinton is spending her time at coffee shops and child care centers….The Clinton campaign hopes targeting suburban voters with small, tailored events, which harken back to small events and roundtables the candidate did when she kicked off her campaign in early 2015, will contrast well with Trump, who is more comfortable pumping up crowds. Her target: suburban women voters, a critical bloc for the former secretary of state.

Clinton’s rollout of a policy for federally expanded access to child care is key to this, and you’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

* AND SUPER PAC GIVING SOARS: A striking factoid from Matea Gold:

A burst of giving by liberal donors and a last-ditch effort to fend off GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump helped super PACs pick up nearly $100 million in new donations by the end of March, pushing the total raised by such groups this cycle to more than $700 million….At this pace, super PACs will raise $1 billion by the end of June. In the entire 2012 cycle, such groups brought in $853 million.

So Super PACs will be yuge this cycle. By the way, has anyone figured out yet whether Trump will give the go-ahead for Super PAC spending on his behalf? He’ll probably have to.