Speaking at a campaign rally in Baltimore on Monday, Donald Trump reiterated what his campaign says will be the week's theme: Denouncing Hillary Clinton's description of half of his supporters as "deplorable," given their racist, sexist or xenophobic beliefs.
That's not really how he framed it. "[I was] deeply shocked and alarmed this Friday to hear my opponent attack, slander, smear, demean these wonderful, amazing people who are supporting our campaign," Trump said. "By the millions. Our support comes from every part of America, and every walk of life. We have the support of cops and soldiers. Carpenters and welders, the young and the old, and millions of working-class families who just want a better future and a good job. These were the people Hillary Clinton so viciously demonized.
"She called these patriotic men and women every vile name in the book. She called them racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic," Trump continued. "She called half of our supporters a basket of deplorables."
It's important to note that this isn't what Clinton said. She didn't say that Trump supporters were racist and sexist because they support Trump. She said that racists and sexists make up half of Trump's support. She didn't say that cops and soldiers were deplorable for backing Trump; she said that racists and sexists are deplorable. Blurring that line is rhetorically awkward for Trump; he essentially just called racists and sexists "wonderful, amazing people" since that's who Clinton was calling deplorable. But that's a nuance that's easy to skip over.
A new ad from the Trump campaign reinforces the end goal: Frame Clinton as having disparaged Trump supporters.
Recent history suggests that such a nuanced pitch to those outside his core base of support might not work very well.
On Saturday, we speculated that the "deplorables" line wouldn't actually alienate that many people. And then, on Sunday, we got new poll numbers that help reinforce that.
What Clinton was trying to do, fairly obviously, is to split Trump's base in two. She hoped to inspire Republicans worried about the racism and sexism that has been associated with Trump's base of support to rethink their backing of him as a candidate.
That's not an insignificant point. We've asked voters in our past two polls whether or not they think Trump himself is biased against women and minorities. Among those who say he is, only 10 percent support Trump (even Gary Johnson does better). Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say Trump is biased, he does a little better, but gets less than half of their support. Clinton gets a fifth of it; Johnson a quarter.
If Clinton can push more people into that camp, thinking of Trump that way, it seems likely to, at the very least, lower the number of people heading to the polls to back Trump. As we noted on Saturday, what's the downside for Clinton? Trump supporters who are mad about her comments already support Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump spent a month trying to undercut the impression that he has a problem with bias against women and minorities. He ostensibly reached out to the black community and flirted briefly with softening his position on immigration. But it didn't work; his numbers with nonwhite voters got worse from August to September, while his numbers with white voters got a little better.
There's an interesting subpoint to that. For the most part, white voters' opinions of Trump's possible bias didn't change much. More than half of whites with college degrees and white women without college degrees think Trump exhibits bias against women and minorities. Only among white working-class men does a majority not think Trump holds that view.
In fact, this is one of the few demographic groups in which a majority sees Trump as unbiased. It's the only group among which there was a statistically significant change from August to September on the question of Trump's bias.
What was that change? White men without college degrees were more likely in September than in August to feel strongly that Trump lacks bias against women and minorities. The overall levels of those who said he lacked bias was the same, it's just the intensity that changed.
So Trump spends weeks pitching his case to nonwhite voters, who are indifferent — but he convinces his strongest base of support even more fervently that he isn't biased or racist.
That's the pivot Clinton wants to exploit, that perception of Trump. Trump didn't make headway in changing opinions about his beliefs, and Clinton's "deplorables" basket aims to peel off any of the nonwhite or non-male parts of his base. (The basket includes mostly white men, it's safe to assume, given that the basket is largely predicated on being racist and sexist; i.e., not white and not male.)
Trump was rather ironically "shocked and alarmed" to hear someone "attack, slander, smear, demean" a broad swath of people. The group in his estimation is "these wonderful, amazing people who are supporting our campaign." In Clinton's estimation, the group is racist and sexist. Each is trying to convince the same group: Voters only loosely tied to Trump. After his month of outreach failed to do more than strengthen his existing base, it's not clear that his latest effort will do much better.