Super Tuesday victories by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton put the nation on a path toward an ugly and contentious general election, pitting a pair of major-party presidential candidates saddled with vulnerabilities in a contest that will be decided by a fearful and angry electorate divided along racial, cultural and ideological lines.
A Trump-Clinton general election matchup would represent the continuation of a decade or more of politics marked by gridlock in Washington, distrust of institutions and leaders, and political discourse that has been on a downward spiral. Whoever wins in November will face the enormously difficult task of trying to bring the country together in the hope of being able to govern effectively.
Trump would lead a Republican Party ruptured and with at least a portion of its followers dispirited by his nomination. He also would face resistance from legions of other voters who consider his nativist message bigoted and repellent.
Clinton would enjoy a more united Democratic Party, although not all would be enthusiastic about her candidacy. Democratic turnout in the primaries has been much lower than it was in 2008, a possible warning sign of less energy behind the party’s nominee in the fall. Beyond her party, Clinton remains a sharply polarizing figure who engenders distrust, even anger, from her opponents.
For millions of voters, the motivating emotions in such a race would be largely negative — driven by stop-Trump or stop-Clinton sentiments as well as fears that the other party’s candidate might prevail and general distress over the state of the country. What the presidential campaign has shown is that positive messages and uplifting visions have barely resonated with the voters. The odds suggest that the general election would be an extension of that pattern.
It has not come to that point yet. Clinton must keep at least a partial eye on Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) as she steadily accumulates the delegates needed to win the nomination. Trump, for all his success Tuesday, still remains far short of a majority of the delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination, leaving anti-Trump forces within the party clinging to the hope that they can derail him before he can attain the number he needs.
The spectacle of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) using his megaphone on the morning of Super Tuesday to reaffirm that the Republicans are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not bigotry or white supremacy, said everything about what Trump’s candidacy has done to the party he seeks to lead.
Ryan is among those who have preached the gospel of positive ideas over personal insults as the Republican Party’s route to winning the White House. So far, he and others who share his views have been fighting a rear-guard action against the grass-roots forces angry with their leaders in Washington and drawn to Trump’s populist message.
Clinton faces nothing like that resistance within the Democratic Party. Sanders has talked of carrying his anti-establishment message into the spring and possibly later. But Clinton is on a clear path to victory and, as she showed on Tuesday night, is already looking toward the general election.
Among her challenges will be trying to improve her image among skeptical independents and even Republicans turned off by Trump before the fall race begins in earnest. Since Clinton’s thumping victory in South Carolina on Saturday, her message has been focused increasingly on Trump, as she tries to position herself as the more optimistic and empathetic of the two.
What the country needs is “love and kindness,” she said again Tuesday night, not anger and insults. Playing off the New York billionaire’s pledge to “make America great again,” Clinton said the United States already is a great country, and long has been one. What’s needed, she argues, is to make it “whole.”
Trump mocked that aspiration, although the sentiment might be shared by many voters after a year of poisonous political rhetoric in the Republican race. In recent days, the GOP race has descended into a trough of petty insults and vulgarities that most people consider unbecoming of the highest office in the land.
Whether Clinton is the candidate who can convincingly make the case that as president she could unite the country is a far different question. Other than President Obama, no Democrat inflames the opposition more than she does. Republicans have not forgotten that, in an early Democratic debate, Clinton said that among the enemies she has made about which she is most proud are Republicans.
A Pew Research Center poll in January asked Americans to rate the prospects for many of the leading presidential candidates. The question was whether they would make good or bad presidents. For Clinton, 35 percent offered a positive response while 44 percent were negative. Eleven percent said she would make a great president, while 28 percent said she would be terrible.
For Trump, about 3 in 10 gave him positive ratings, compared with about half offering a negative view. Those who said he would be a great president totaled 11 percent, the same as for Clinton. But 38 percent said he would be a terrible president, 10 points higher than for the former secretary of state.
A recent CNN-ORC poll found that 37 percent of registered voters have a favorable impression of Trump, compared with 60 percent who view him unfavorably. For Clinton, it was 42 percet favorable to 55 percent unfavorable.
Clinton’s weaknesses have been evident throughout the campaign — a lack of trust from voters, many of whom question her honesty. Her candidacy remains clouded by an FBI investigation of her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Trump’s weaknesses are even more glaring, as the turmoil inside the Republican Party highlights.
The attack lines for a Trump-Clinton general election are already obvious and will become sharper. Trump’s failure to denounce the Ku Klux Klan over the weekend is only one statement that could come at him. The criticisms launched by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the closing days before Super Tuesday — that Trump is an unprincipled “con man” who has exaggerated his business acumen and who has no grasp of policy issues — only hint at what the Democrats would throw at him.
Trump said Tuesday night that he would be a “unifier” as the GOP nominee, but he also signaled his intention to talk almost exclusively about Clinton in the general election. Given his style of campaigning, the attacks on her would be even more personal and relentless, aimed not only at her honesty and her handling of the email issue but also at her husband’s past dalliances, at the Obama record overseas and her role in it as secretary of state.
That’s a recipe for a general election largely bereft of aspirational campaigning, more negative by far than the campaign of 2012 in which Obama and the Democrats pounded Republican nominee Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat and the Republicans hammered Obama as a president who was trying to take the country far to the left.
That campaign left the nation deeply divided, and the past three years have done little to change the environment. The fall campaign has not fully taken shape. But everything to this point suggests that’s where this crucial contest could be heading.