America is heading toward a historic presidential election, and that’s not only because it will likely feature the first woman candidate and a billionaire businessman who has never held elective office.
It also looks to be a matchup between two candidates with historically high unfavorable ratings – “a battle of the negatives,” if you will. Not since George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, has a presidential candidate had an unfavorable rating above 50 percent at this period in the election cycle.
Now it has two, with Donald Trump at 64 percent unfavorable and Hillary Clinton at 55, according to Gallup.
What does that imply for the campaign tone for the next six months, and how will voters respond?
Because of the uniqueness of the campaign, experts can only guess. Will the high unfavorables motivate voters to stop the other guy? Or will sulking voters stay home? What does seem certain is that attacks will feature prominently in the campaign.
But not all attacks are equal, analysts add, and this election could sharply highlight the very different ways to run a "negative" campaign.
Factual ads educate and motivate voters, while unsubstantiated attacks – especially personal smears – turn them off and are “risky,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
They particularly fall flat with female voters, who don’t like incivility in a campaign. Mr. Trump’s unfavorable ratings among women, which hit 70 percent in April, raise questions about whether he can continue with his scorching rhetoric during the general election.
Recent days have shown the distinction in how Trump and Mrs. Clinton have gone negative.
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Trump consistently refers to “crooked Hillary,” just as he used the labels “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” to describe his primary opponents. In Oregon on Friday, he brought up Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, saying Mrs. Clinton was a “total enabler.”
Clinton calls Trump a "loose cannon" and last week her campaign put out an Internet mashup video of GOP primary contenders and other prominent Republicans criticizing Trump. It concluded with Jeb Bush saying Trump “needs therapy.”
The video reminds Professor Jamieson of the powerful 1964 ad that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson used against GOP conservative challenger Barry Goldwater in the general election. It, too, quoted sharp criticisms by Goldwater’s primary challengers.
“Both Trump and Hillary are going highly negative, but there’s a sharp contrast between the two,” says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Almost everything from the Democratic side, he says, has been about issues. “You don’t have stuff from the National Inquirer and dirty things said.”
The GOP primary belatedly taught Trump opponents such as Marco Rubio a lesson: to respond but not at the same level as Trump. Clinton looks like she’s learned that lesson, Jamieson says. “She’s working hard to not sound unpresidential. She isn’t responding in kind.”
So far, Trump has found that his broadsides bring rewards: large crowds, free media attention, primary wins, and cheers from many voters for his shoot-from-the-mouth style.
But they’ve also turned off large swaths of voters, such as women and minorities, as well as people in his own party. Trump could change his tone, Jamieson says, and then the question would be how quickly, or if, voters would forgive or forget.
The main driver for both candidates to go negative is weakness – their own, and their opponent’s. Clinton, who is leading Trump in most polls, needs to make sure that his negatives stay high as a motivator for her base. And Trump needs to drive up Clinton’s negatives to unite Republicans against her, says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas.
Could they drive down their own negatives with positive, advocacy ads about themselves? Voters are driven to the polls by traits such as “inspiring,” “cares about individuals,” and “visionary,” Gallup data show, but both front-runners score low on these characteristics.
Clinton and Trump will surely try to project positive images of themselves, experts say, “but for both of them, [the negatives] are so deeply baked in, it’s hard to see how” they can substantially reverse their unfavorable ratings, says Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
“They have to use the Jesse Helms strategy of ‘You may not like me, but I’m going to make sure you dislike my opponent more!’ ” writes Mr. Goeas in an e-mail, referring to the late senator from North Carolina.
Gallup pollster Frank Newport cautions that unfavorable numbers can change over time. He points to Bill Clinton’s dramatic turnaround at the 1992 Democratic convention, for instance, while, by the fall, the senior Bush’s unfavorable rating was almost as bad as Trump’s is now.
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What pollsters and others are unsure about, is whether two disliked candidates will drive high turnout. In 2008, Mr. Newport points out, Barack Obama generated high enthusiasm for his candidacy among certain groups, such as young people and African Americans. “It’s possible it could work in the opposite direction,” with certain groups such as Hispanics and women highly motivated to vote against Trump.
On the other hand, voters deeply disappointed with the choices may stay home.
“You’re going to have a lot of complaining from voters that they don’t like the choices, the negativity. That the race isn’t worthy of the office,” says Mr. Mackowiak.
He points to the clamoring for a third-party candidate from people such as Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, but says he has “grave doubts” that such a candidate could succeed at this late stage.
The truth is, pollsters don’t know how voters will react to the battle of the negatives.
“Maybe both of them beat each other up and that raises the intensity on both sides. But it could have the effect of every day, voters just saying, ‘I don’t want this choice of the lesser of two evils,’ and just staying home,” says Mr. Goeas.
“It could go either way. We’re truly in uncharted waters.”