Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tosses aside notes left by Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan as he speaks in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday, April 18. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)
Columnist

The 2016 presidential election is shaping up as an unpopularity contest of unprecedented proportions.

Assuming, as now appears most likely, that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and that either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz becomes the Republican nominee, the general-election ballot is set to feature a choice between two candidates more negatively viewed than any major-party nominee in the history of polling.

Trump is, by far, the furthest underwater: The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll puts his net favorability rating at minus-41. A breathtaking 65 percent of registered voters see him negatively, versus 24 percent with a positive view, making him the most unpopular major party presidential candidate ever recorded. Cruz is at minus-23, with 49 percent viewing him negatively, 26 percent in a positive light.

To underscore the challenge facing the GOP, neither candidate has been viewed more positively than negatively by voters since the start of the campaign.

Clinton, by contrast, has a healthier (and more volatile) history with voters. Polls showed her favorables slightly ahead of her negatives when she formally launched her campaign last April. But her trajectory is unnerving. The new WSJ-NBC numbers have Clinton minus-24 (with 56 percent viewing her unfavorably and 32 percent favorably), almost double the gap just one month earlier.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump says he can't wait to take on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in the fall, but here are three reasons why he could lose a general election. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

“This is unprecedented,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “It will be the first time in the history of polling that we’ll have both major party candidates disliked by a majority of the American people going into the election.”

Pause to let that sink in, to compare this dyspeptic situation with previous elections — and consider the implications for governing.

Some historical perspective: All three candidates are more unpopular than the losing presidential candidate at any point during the past five election cycles, according to Gallup data.

If the nominees are Trump and Clinton, said Republican pollster David Winston, “You’re probably looking somewhere in the neighborhood of three out of 10 Americans having a negative view of both. You could have a very frustrated electorate by the time we get to Election Day.”

It sounds oxymoronic, but voters could elect a president that a majority of them view unfavorably. Assuming Clinton has the advantage over Trump, said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, “she is going to be elected, if she wins, in minus territory, which is something we’ve never had before.”

Voters’ assessments of candidates between April and Election Day tend to stay stable; the notable exceptions were Bill Clinton in 1992, who moved from minus-11 to plus-7 in the WSJ-NBC poll, and Barack Obama in 2008, who rose from plus-7 to plus-21. Hillary Clinton, given the roller-coaster nature of her ratings, may have the capacity to rise again.

Still, the unpopularity of the leading candidates reflects both their unique characteristics as polarizing personalities and the broader political sorting of the American electorate. As voters assemble themselves into reliably and increasingly intense red and blue blocs, their assessments of the opposing side harden.

Which raises questions about the potentially grim aftermath.

“Electing either Clinton or Trump with these type of unfavorable numbers immediately means a weakened president without the power to persuade from the day she or he [is] sworn into office,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

History teaches that a new president’s approval rating rises between Election Day and the inauguration. Americans become more charitably disposed to their new leader once the campaign has concluded, if only briefly.

Given these bargain basement favorability numbers, will the 45th president enjoy that luxury? Does presidential popularity even matter in an era of congressional gridlock?

Some political scientists think not, citing a shift in the locus of presidential authority away from legislating. “Presidential power is no longer the power to persuade,” said Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. “Popularity at one time was a major factor in a president’s ability to govern, but we are in the era of the institutional president, where presidents rely on their administrative powers and the powers of the office, and less on public opinion.”

If Clinton is elected, said Middlebury College political scientist Matthew Dickinson, “the fact that she may be one of the most unfavorably viewed presidents is not going to make a huge difference, because she’s likely going to be running into a House controlled by Republicans and the Senate’s going to be close either way. That’s what really eats into your ability to govern, rather than your favorability ratings.”

Perhaps. But the unfolding unpopularity contest cannot be a healthy sign for our democracy, nor a good omen for the presidency to come.

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