It’s the most unpopular choice facing voters in American history. Here’s the depressing tale of how we got there… and what it might mean for our future.
By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
[Editor’s Note: This post by Matt Rooney was originally featured in JerseyMan Magazine]
We’ve all heard someone say it at an office water cooler, supermarket check-out line, family barbeque or during one of those late night show man-on-the-street interviews. Maybe you’ve even uttered some variation of the following. I’d be willing to bet on it:
“I’m sick and tired of the political attack ads!”
“Why can’t politicians stop the negativity and tell us what they’re for?”
“Washington needs to find a way to work together for the people’s sake.”
Fair enough, America.
I believe that YOU believe you’re being honest.
Color me skeptical all the same. Here’s my equally fair question: if any of that “we want to believe in someone for a change” sentiment is true, then why did you just select two presidential candidates whom most Americans (yourselves included) absolutely loathe?
The evidence is overwhelming: Americans hate the Donald and the Hillary, too.
Public opinion pollsters and U.S. political scientists everywhere are going to spend the next few months—and possibly many decades to come—studying the data and searching for an answer. There’s something truly historic happening out there. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton poised to receive their respective parties’ presidential nominations in the summer of 2016, a record number of American voters will head into polling stations this November, if present trends hold, without any love lost where either major party candidate is concerned. They’ll be choosing, as the old saying goes, “the lesser of two evils.”
Of course, there’s no need to wait for November for the academics’ verdict.
Let’s take a preliminary look at the main catalysts driving what is an unambiguously uninspiring (read: depressing!) choice no matter whom you ultimately choose to support… or perhaps more accurately, whom you decided to vote against….
Hate By the Numbers
First, we need to reconcile ourselves to the scope and severity of the situation.
“No past candidate comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike…,” Harry Enten, a senior political writer and analyst for the popular and celebrated FiveThirtyEight blog, recently opined while analyzing the objectively ugly polling data.
[pullquote]Don’t make the mistake of thinking Trumphobia and Clinton antipathy is strictly personal or largely ideological. [/pullquote]He’s understating the situation. Context is helpful in understanding the historic nature of the unprecedented hate fest cited by Enten. For example, even at the height of the controversial Iraq War and its aftermath, then-President George W. Bush’s average so-called “strongly unfavorable” rating (the measure of how many Americans, simply put, viewed him very unfavorably) hovered in the low-to-mid 30% range heading into the summer leading up to Election 2004. Yes, a lot of people hated the second Bush. Millions! But a larger number of citizens in that famously polarized election cycle felt the opposite emotion or something less severe in either direction.
Donald Trump’s position after locking up the GOP presidential nomination? Fifty-three percent, measurably worse than Dubya and miles worse than any other Republican or Democratic nominee in modern American political history.
The former Secretary of State is less reviled than the reality star but, in case any Hillary fans are tempted to celebrate, only by a whisker.
“Clinton’s average ‘strongly unfavorable’ rating in probability sample polls from late March to late April, 37 percent, is about five percentage points higher than the previous high between 1980 and 2012. Trump, though, is on another planet,” Enten explained in his May 2016 analysis. “Trump’s average ‘strongly unfavorable’ rating, 53 percent, is 20 percentage points higher than every candidate’s rating besides Clinton’s. Trump is less disliked than David Duke was when Duke ran for the presidency in 1992, but Duke never came close to winning the nomination.”
“In fact, I’ve seen never anything like Trump’s numbers heading into a general election for someone who is supposed to be competitive,” added Enten, expressing the bewilderment shared by political nerds of all stripes.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Trumphobia and Clinton antipathy is strictly personal or largely ideological. Americans simply don’t think Trump or Clinton would do a particularly good job in the Oval Office. In fact, A December 2007 Gallup/USA Today poll discovered 41% of Americans believed U.S. Senator and war hero John McCain would be a good or even “great” president, and 17% thought he’d be poor or terrible. Only 21% thought Barack Obama, then a freshman U.S. Senator, would do a bad job.
Eight years later? Forty-three percent of Americans think both Trump and Clinton would burn the house down if trusted with the most powerful elected position on the planet.
The picture isn’t much less depressing when you look at supporters—folks who presumably find something, anything, redeeming about their horse in the race to come.
One Reuters/Ipsos poll released in early May found 47% of Trump supporters stated that stopping Clinton—not electing Trump—was the primary reason why they were ready to back the notoriously bombastic real estate tycoon. That’s four points more than the number who support him (a pitiful 43%) because of his beliefs and positions.
Again, Secretary Clinton’s numbers weren’t any stronger; 46% support Clinton in order to stop Trump; just 40% are charged-up to vote over her actual substantive agenda.
With friends like those, who needs the other party? Right?
It’s Personal… By Design?
Yes, the math is hideous. What’s behind it all?
Well, to begin with, while I already cautioned you that it isn’t strictly personal, it’s still mostly personal. No doubt about it. Americans really don’t like these two. At all. Every poll comes up with different reasons for voters’ loathing. An April 2016 AP-GfK poll found voters complaining that Trump wasn’t compassionate and Clinton wasn’t honest.
My two cents? Neither Trump nor Clinton has built a brand on likeability. Put another way, neither candidate has ever tried very hard to make you like them.
Think about it: when Donald Trump goes full-on narcissist and flaunts his wealth or callously gesticulates on stage to mock a reporter’s handicap at a rally (yes, that happened!) or even insinuates on national television that his primary opponents’ father participated in the Kennedy assassination (yup, that also happened), that’s not a candidate who’s interested in winning by uniting the electorate. That’s a guy who plans to divide and conquer and, at least where the GOP is concerned, he’s already achieved “yuge” success.
For her part, Hillary Clinton has bitterly complained about an alleged “vast right-wing conspiracy” going all the way back to 1998. She accused half of the country of having it out for her husband while the former president’s notoriously undisciplined sex drive indirectly resulted in the second-only impeachment of an American president. More recently? Even hardened supporters cringed when she coldly declared “What difference does it make?” when questioned by a congressional committee over deaths of four Americans in a 2012 Benghazi terror attack.
Gone are the days of #Hope and #Change. We’re light years removed from “I like Ike.” No, these aren’t visionary, forward-thinking candidates who care if you vote FOR them, or what they believe, or who they’re planning to help or if they believe anything at all. Love or loathe them, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton never pretend to be anything other than vehicles for collective displeasure and retributive judgement.
They build walls, not bridge gaps. As the polling data I’ve cited bears out, folks, if you’re voting for Trump or Clinton, you’re doing so because they’ve promised to punish the people whom you happen to hate more than them.
For most voters this year, revenge is indeed a dish best served cold… apparently with a generously-portioned side of Donald or Hillary. Dinner is served.
2016 Isn’t Ideological But It’s Definitely Cultural
Fair or not, Trump and Hillary are also exceptionally easy to stereotype in a country that remains politically polarized, and when we talk about polarization, Americans aren’t warring one another over tax policies or nuclear treaties.
The new battle lines are transgender bathroom laws, Starbucks versus WalMart and nationalism versus internationalism.
It’s a cultural thing! And those cultural differences not only turn off members of the opposing ideological coalition, but they also make it harder for the presumptive nominees to unite their respective parties heading into the general election.
“In 1966, which is not exactly millennia ago, Trump’s vulgarity would have had him banned from appearing on anyone’s black-and-white TV—even after midnight. Today, he is the front-runner. Today, in fact, he is coveted not by the blue channels but by the news channels. He is ratings. He sells. He is Viagra without commercials,” bitterly complained the conservative National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy in a recent screed.
“Clinton, in short, remains a proponent of bread-and-circuses liberalism, not a critic of corporate power or structural economic inequality,” Huffington Post Senior Political Economy Reporter Zach Carter lamented from the opposite side of the aisle. “Sanders hasn’t pushed her to the left. At best, he has driven her to say weird things in public.”
A little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
Familiarity Breeds Contempt.
A lot of it.
Unlikeable? Disinterested? Culturally alienating?
Check, check and check.
There’s also the simple matter of familiarity breeding contempt. It’s not overly common for both general election candidates to boast near-universal name recognition before the primary is even over. Being a known quantity remains a double-edged sword. Everyone on both coasts and everywhere in between is well-acquainted with the Donald and the Hillary.
Consequently, there isn’t a voting-age adult in the United States who hasn’t developed a strong opinion where either politician is concerned.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for voters to change their preconceived notions.
“It’s a phenomenon we have never really seen before—an already extremely well-known figure who can completely flip his favorability ratings in the span of weeks [without the intervention of a national emergency or similar event],” New Jersey-based pollster Patrick Murray of Monmouth University told IBT Times back in August 2015 as Trump’s pre-primary momentum began to pick up speed. “But of course, that rule has applied to our experience with typical politicians. Trump is completely outside the box.”
Whether lightning can strike twice in one election cycle remains to be seen.
Looking Ahead: Will Voter Rage Realign the Electorate? Or Burn it Out?
What this historic hate-fest means for America’s political tomorrow—near and short term—isn’t entirely clear.
The two most likely outcomes? (1) The voters tune out of a record-setting level of negativity in the fall contest and we see some of the lowest turnout in decades, or (2) the electorate realigns and the Democrat and Republican parties are forever transformed, for good or for ill.
Only time will tell.
What we do know sitting here today, is, at a time when America’s challenges are mounting and the stakes have never been higher, a strong majority of Americans are poised to select a leader whom they neither like nor trust to get the job done.
That’s sad no matter how you slice it.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote during his time in Paris how, in his estimation, “[t]he tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Here’s hoping angst works just as well for the soil of American democracy. It’s what we’ve got to work with in 2016.