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Trump's and Clinton’s favorable ratings are awful. Here’s why.

Patterns of thought

Structural factors rooted in America's partisan divide help make the Democratic and GOP candidates the least-liked in modern polling. 

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    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump have the lowest favorability ratings in modern polling.
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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the least-liked presidential candidates ever. That’s a common refrain in news coverage of the 2016 election.

And it’s true. Only 35 percent of voters have a favorable view of Mr. Trump, according to the latest Gallup figures. Thirty-nine percent have a favorable view of Mrs. Clinton. Gallup says those are the lowest such numbers in the history of modern polling. That’s important – the candidate with a better favorable rating usually wins.

But those low numbers might not be driven by Trump and Clinton’s personal characteristics. Not entirely, at least. Structural factors rooted in the partisan divide of current politics are likely at work here as well.

Both parties are struggling with internal identity crises. Neither found a unity candidate that brought their big factions together. In that situation, the path to victory involves attacking the other party’s choice, says one expert. The Trump and Clinton campaigns are trying to rally their parties in the negative, in opposition to what, or rather who, they don’t like.

“Both parties recognize that the key to winning is really to disqualify the other’s candidate,” says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the think tank New America.

Party identity

The key here is to remember that like so many things in today’s US politics, whether a voter has a favorable opinion of a presidential candidate or not is driven by party identity as much as or more than logic.

You can see this in the fact that most voters do not dislike both Trump and Clinton. A majority of Americans has a favorable opinion of one and dislikes the other. Party is the clue – as of Sept. 6, 79 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, according to Gallup data. Seventy-four percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Donald Trump.

So why are their overall favorability ratings low? Well, self-described independents were not wild about either. Only 30 percent of this group liked Clinton, and 27 percent Trump. And partisan voters stone-cold loathed the other party’s choice. Only 6 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of Trump. The GOP returned the favor, with only 6 percent liking Clinton.

“Americans’ opinions of candidates and elected officials are sharply divided along party lines, and negative feelings about the opposing party tend to be stronger than positive feelings about one’s own party,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, and John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, wrote earlier this year in the Monkey Cage blog of The Washington Post.

Dissent in the ranks

But here’s the twist: This year, both candidates have eroded on the likeability measure within their own party. That is a big reason why their numbers have plunged toward rock bottom. In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both had likeability ratings in the high 80s within their respective parties as Election Day neared. Today, Clinton and Trump are 10 to 15 percentage points short of that.

Enter party division. Both Democrats and Republicans had contentious primaries. Bernie Sanders supporters have yet to fully back Clinton, perhaps contributing to her lower favorable numbers. And Trump has split the GOP into opposing camps, at least at its higher levels, with many prominent Republicans moving into the #NeverTrump camp. That has to be affecting his favorability polls.

“The Republicans are much more internally divided, but the Democrats have a reckoning ahead as well,” says Mr. Drutman.

What’s to be done in such a situation? Attack! Make the election about the other candidate. That might get otherwise reluctant partisans back to their respective sides. And the US political environment is ripe for such an approach. Fully 55 percent of Democrats say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-nine percent of Republicans say the same thing about Democrats.

It’s hard to see this phenomenon going away. A President Trump, running for reelection in 2020, might well draw a serious #NeverTrump primary challenge, as well as a tough Democratic opponent. Ditto for a President Clinton. She’d likely face a recalcitrant Democratic Party left wing and a resurgent GOP establishment.

But this might not be so terrible, according to Drutman. Divisions within parties might begin to tear down divisions between parties, restoring some power to Congress and unleashing bipartisan creativity.

“Maybe it seems like a long shot. But it might be less unlikely than you think,” he writes in a recent Vox piece on the subject.

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