With Super Tuesday voting and other primaries and caucuses behind us, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the clear leaders in the Republican and Democratic races for their party’s presidential nominations.
But they are both damaged candidates and the parties have only themselves to blame for their success.
Democrats have known for years that Hillary would be a seriously flawed candidate.
“She has always been awkward and uninspiring on the stump,” a senior Democratic consultant once told the Washington Post. “Hillary has Bill’s baggage and now her own as secretary of state — without Bill’s personality, eloquence or warmth.”
While her damaging e-mail scandal may be relatively new, Hillary has been associated with decades of personal and political contretemps, leading to a clear case of Clinton fatigue among the populace.
Equally troubling to the Democratic Party should be Hillary’s trust gap.
In a July 2015 Quinnipiac University national poll, 57 percent of respondents said Clinton is not honest and trustworthy, one of the worst scores among all the top candidates at the time. And her scores have gotten worse. In a subsequent Quinnipiac poll, 61 percent of respondents said Clinton is not honest and trustworthy.
In an August 2015 Quinnipiac University poll, “liar” was the first word that came to mind more than others in an open-ended question when voters were asked what they think of Clinton, followed by “dishonest” and “untrustworthy”. (“Arrogant” was the first word that came to mind for Trump, but that doesn’t seem quite as toxic)
In January 2016, a poll produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates put Hillary 12 points behind Bernie Sanders, 48-36 percent, in being seen as more honest and trustworthy, a deterioration from 6 points behind in Dec. 2015 and equal to Sanders in October 2015.
But Hillary’s problems as a candidate go even deeper.
“Voters see her as an extraordinarily cynical, power-hungry insider,” James Poulos said in The Week on Feb. 2. “She is out for herself, not out for Americans. Voters know it.”
This ties in with a long-held and widespread perception that Hillary and her family are just plain greedy, what with them hauling off $190,000 worth of china, flatware, rugs, televisions, sofas and other gifts when they moved out of the White House, taking money from all sorts of unsavory people and foreign countries for their Foundation, and charging exorbitant amounts for speeches.
David Axelrod, a political consultant who helped steer Obama to the presidency, noted in his book, “Believer”, that Hillary has two other main weaknesses: she’s a polarizing rather than a “healing figure,” and she has a hard time selling herself as the “candidate of the future” given her checkered past and long political resume.
And then, as Josh Kraushaar wrote in The Atlantic before Jeb Bush dropped out, “…pundits and donors alike are vastly overrating the prospects of two brand-name candidates for 2016 — Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush — and undervaluing the reality that the current political environment is as toxic as it’s ever been for lifelong politicians.”
Then there’s Trump
That, of course, takes us to Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s “Nightmare on Park Avenue.”
Isolated in their cocoons, party officials (and the political press) assumed an establishment candidate would emerge the victor. They denied to themselves and others for months that Trump would be a viable candidate for the Republican nomination.
Nobody was more smug in this assumption then Jeb!
He started early, rebuilding political connections, building a professional staff and laying the groundwork for a “shock and awe” fundraising blitz. But he faltered early and never regained his balance. He watched helplessly as his fund-raising advantage become a disadvantage, defining him as the establishment favorite when the Republican base was looking for a change agent.
Political leaders also overestimated voters’ desire for solid, traditional, steady candidates and too quickly dismissed Trump as a long-term threat. “Reality TV will gather a lot of interest and a lot of people enjoyed the celebrity of that, but for the last 14 years, I’ve had to live in the real world and deal with real world issues and come up with real world solutions,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in mid-2015. “And that’s what the people I think of this country want out of the next president of the United States.”
Meanwhile, confident that Trump’s bombast, misstatements and insults would doom him, Republican Party leaders watched incredulously as he rolled over establishment candidates.
“Until recently, the narrative of stories like this has been predictable,” Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone. “If a candidate said something nuts, or seemingly not true, an army of humorless journalists quickly dug up all the facts, and the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies… That dynamic has broken down this election season. Politicians are quickly learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it.”
As Karen Tumulty wrote in the Washington Post, “Will Trump eventually cross a line — or do the lines no longer exist?”
The make-up and size of the Republican candidate field also has worked to Trump’s advantage.
There’s no love lost, for example, between most members of Congress and Ted Cruz. And with so many Republican candidates (17 at one point), voter preferences were atomized for too long and even now none of the remaining candidates are willing to drop out, preventing the emergence of a single challenger to Trump.
So here we are, facing the possibility of a Clinton-Trump election.
Just goes to show that Clarence Darrow was right. “When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it,” he said.