Trump vs. Clinton: Will Trump's bullying tone backfire?

After Super Tuesday victories in seven states each, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are preparing their general-election strategies.

David Becker/Nancy Wiechec/Reuters/File
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) are seen in a combination of file photos taken in Henderson, Nevada, February 13 (l.) and Phoenix, Arizona, July 11, 2015.

Donald Trump has given new meaning to the term bully pulpit. From verbal assaults against entire groups like Hispanics and Muslims to individuals like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Megyn Kelly, and Carly Fiorina, the brash billionaire has built an enthusiastic following with his abrasive tone.

Now, as Super Tuesday outcomes – in which Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton each won seven states – make a Clinton-Trump race increasingly likely, all signs indicate the outspoken businessman will soon turn his vitriol against Mrs. Clinton.

“It will be a war,” said Rebecca Traister, whose book “Big Girls Don’t Cry” detailed Clinton’s 2008 race, to Yahoo News. “Trump is popular because he is channeling the anxiety of those who are losing power – white men – to those who are gaining it – women and minorities – and he is willing to say anything that expresses that hate.”

And Clinton is likely to fire back, notes David Ryden, a political scientist at Hope College. "I have no doubt a Clinton-Trump contest would degenerate very quickly into a pretty nasty affair with lots of attention devoted to each other's character flaws," he writes in an email interview with the Monitor.

Although traditional conventions about running against a woman suggest certain attacks and insults are off-limits, Trump has repeatedly shown he doesn't play by the same rules as everybody else. After all, he called Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly a "bimbo" and suggested she was hormonal during a Fox News-hosted debate, and insulted GOP rival Carly Fiorina's appearance, which he suggested would cost her votes.

Recent history indicates he'll go after Clinton in a similar fashion. He called Clinton's mid-debate bathroom break "disgusting," suggested she wears a wig, and used a crude anatomical term to characterize Clinton's loss to President Obama in the 2008 primaries. Looking forward to direct competition with Clinton, Trump has also indicated that Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs were “fair game” in the election because they were an “abuse of women.”

In a general election match-up against Clinton, however, Trump should tread carefully, say political observers, because his bullying might just backfire.

"Hillary Clinton has always been at her strongest when she has seemed most vulnerable," writes Yahoo's Lisa Belkin.

Her popularity soared during former President Clinton's impeachment hearings, and after she teared up after her Iowa caucus defeat against Barack Obama in the 2008 primary season.

The former secretary of State has also successfully used her opponents' attacks against them, as when former Rep. Rick Lazio appeared to bully Clinton at a 2000 US Senate debate: he crossed the stage, waved a paper in her face, and challenged her to sign a pledge renouncing soft money.

"The image of him invading her space was long used as a lesson in how not to challenge a female politician," wrote the Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi

How might Trump's attacks – unprecedented in modern politics – help Clinton? After he used a crude term to describe Clinton's loss to Obama in the 2008 primaries, Clinton used the opportunity to speak out against Trump's tone.

“I really deplore the tone of his campaign and the inflammatory rhetoric he is using to divide people," she told the Des Moines Register late last year. "His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign.”

She also indicated she won't respond directly to his attacks, "because he thrives on that kind of exchange."

That doesn't mean her surrogates, including her husband, won't take those shots for her, says Professor Ryden. "Clinton can take the high ground, and leave it to surrogates to make the case for Trump's deep-seated sexism."

They'll be well armed, Ryden notes. "Clinton is sure to have a file of opposition research on Trump reaching to the ceiling, and it would take an awful lot of self-restraint not to use it."

Trump is unlikely to show similar self-restraint, he says. "Trump has a propensity for descending into the crude and profane, and I can't see him being able to refrain from doing so in a head-to-head match-up with Hillary Clinton."

Clinton's supporters expect that to work against Trump in the general campaign.

"For every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up [with those comments], he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, who has endorsed Clinton, to The New York Times.

Indeed, the Clinton camp appears set on harnessing Trump's toxic tone for their candidate's benefit, speculating that Trump's misogynistic comments against women may be the "perfect solution to [Clinton's] enthusiasm gap" with women.

Nonetheless, Trump has exceeded all expectations thus far and is rewriting the playbook, so there's no guarantee his bullying will backfire. In fact, it may play well with white, male voters, a particular area of strength for the businessman and a major weakness for Clinton.

When one candidate is committed to brawling, it's hard to stay above the fray, as Trump's Republican primary competitors discovered. Even if Clinton keeps her own hands clean, letting her surrogates slug it out with Trump could tarnish the tone of her campaign, noted David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign.

As he told the Times, “Hope and change, not so much. More like hate and castrate.”

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