That is the reality that faces Republicans as they look down the road at the general election. A totally winnable race after eight years out of the White House that may be unwinnable -- or close to it -- because of a primary process that has put forward two of their least appealing general election candidates.
Start with this: Just one in three (32 percent) of general election voters see Clinton in a positive light while 56 percent regard her negatively. That's Clinton's worst score since NBC-WSJ started asking about Clinton's image in early 2001.
And, the NBC-WSJ numbers are far from an outlier. Her numbers -- particularly when it comes to the number of people who view her as "honest" and "trustworthy" have long been in net negative territory -- and the ongoing questions surrounding her private email server while serving as Secretary of State doesn't help matters. The simple fact is that Clinton is totally known by the general electorate and somewhere between mildly and strongly disliked by a majority of them.
That's a problem. In a "normal" election year it's a really BIG problem.
This is not a normal election year, which of course you know unless you've been hiding under a pile of coats for the last 15 months. So, yes, Clinton is unpopular. But her numbers look positively great when compared to where Donald Trump stands in that same NBC-WSJ poll.
Just one in four (24 percent) of respondents give Trump a positive rating while 65 percent give him a negative one. That's a "historic low for a major presidential candidate in the NBC/WSJ poll," according to NBC deputy political director Carrie Dann.
But, when you look inside those Trump numbers, things get even worse. Check this out:
Seven in ten women view Trump negatively! Three in four millennials! Eight in ten Hispanics!
Those numbers are historically bad. And, I would say that no candidate could win a general election with them except that I have witnessed Trump flip his negatives to positives with Republican voters so I am not ready to rule it totally out. What I will say is those numbers make it virtually impossible for a candidate to win a general election.
Cruz is not Trump. But, neither is he popular with the broader electorate. Twenty six percent of people had a positive view of him as compared to 49 percent who had a negative view. That's a net -23, right in line with Clinton's net -24. And, it's worth considering that Cruz is less well known than either Clinton or Trump, meaning that he has room to grow -- either positively or negatively -- if and when he becomes the GOP nominee. My guess is that Cruz's Senate record would provide Democratic groups as well as Clinton's campaign with ample opposition research to cast the Texan as too conservative for the average swing voter in, say, Ohio.
The old adage that you can't beat someone with no one fits here. Put slightly more accurately, it's that you can't beat an unpopular person with someone even less popular.
If Clinton and Trump are the two presidential nominees, which still seems the most likely outcome today, you can expect a race-to-the-bottom the likes of which have been rarely seen even in presidential politics. Given where each of the candidate's numbers stand, the only way to win will be to make it a choice between bad and worse.
Clinton seems poised to win that fight -- by a wide margin against Trump and a narrower margin against Cruz. Should Clinton be elected the 45th president of the United States, Republicans will spend the next four years (at least) kicking themselves at missing such a great opportunity. But, as it stands today, that is exactly what they are poised to do.