And Then There Were Two

By Steve Kopperud, SLK Strategies

Just about a year ago, most political experts offered pretty much the same forecast for the 2016 United States (US) presidential election: former Secretary of State/Senator/First Lady Hillary Clinton would sail to the Democrat nomination, if not the White House, while real estate mogul/reality television producer and star Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations would be mostly entertaining, burn brightly for a minute or two, and be a distant memory by June 2016. Both forecasts were dead wrong.

The current US political season is, for the majority of observers, the most counterintuitive, anti-establishment race for the White House in recent memory.

As of this writing, Trump will carry the GOP banner to Clinton’s Democrat flag in the race for the most electoral votes on November 8. Both candidates put the talking heads and media inside the Beltway into a frenzy because neither fits the mold of a conventional presidential candidate. Trump defies the definition because he is Trump, a businessman with high name recognition but not a professional politician who spent his primary runs ignoring the Republican National Committee (RNC). Clinton, a party stalwart, pushes the envelope because she is running as a loyal President Barack Obama acolyte dedicated to the hallmark “hope and change” of his eight years, not as the first independent woman to head a major party ticket for president of the United States.

More than in previous presidential elections, this race is less about the better candidate to lead the county and more about blocking the other party’s nominee. Just less than 50 percent of voters who say they support either Clinton or Trump acknowledge their priority is blocking the other party from winning, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in early May.

Both candidates carry near-historical high unfavorable ratings – Trump at 65 percent, Clinton at 55 percent – across the country no matter the particular demographic, and neither is seen as particularly likeable, compassionate, or trustworthy. In any other election cycle, such public opinion numbers would be troubling, if not fatal, but not in 2016.

Clinton is hailed as an experienced politician and leader with strong foreign policy credentials. Trump is the classic outsider, a savvy businessman who will shake up Washington, DC, and bring a new era of government. Both Clinton and Trump are wild cards on policy and positions with just six months to define – many contend the goal is to redefine – and then sell themselves to the American public.

Throughout the primary/caucus season, Clinton, the single “establishment” politico in the race, struggled against self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Sanders, who stunned experts by generating support among millennials – including 18 to 35-year-old women previously assumed to be a lock for Clinton – has forced Clinton to run farther to the left on issues than perhaps she is comfortable or pundits expect. While it appears she will accumulate enough delegates by the July 25 opening gavel of the Democrats’ Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, convention, Sanders has vowed to fight to the bitter end.

Trump is the definition of the political survivor, surprising even himself in reaching presumptive nominee status after Texas Senator Ted Cruz suspended his presidential bid. Trump identified early that the open road to votes lay with exposing within the middle and lower-middle classes – particularly among men – the raw nerves of the disenfranchised. He provided a very loud voice for their frustrations, suspicions, and distrust of the establishment’s political system and those who inhabit it.

Some pundits contend Trump’s mastery of bombast, overstatement, contradiction, and diatribe is intentional and highly effective. Others contend he is simply stumbling to the nomination, tripping over one misstatement or insult after the other, successful if for no other reason than he is “The Donald,” with the inevitable media feeding frenzy.

The baggage Clinton brings with her is well known: President Bill Clinton’s continuing popularity with the Democrat base, up to now untouched by his infidelities real or imagined; her move to New York to run for the Senate; her loss to then-Senator Obama for the 2008 Democrat presidential nomination; and her embracing of President Obama’s foreign policy agenda – against which she ran vigorously in 2008 – when he named her secretary of state.

Looking at Clinton’s record as secretary, there is continuing ugliness surrounding her handling of the 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate at Benghazi, Libya, that left three people dead, including the US ambassador. There is also the seemingly unending Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe into her use of a personal e-mail server, questions of whether she compromised classified and top secret government information, and, ultimately, if the FBI will bring charges or indict her.

Trump is now the only option for the “anyone but Hillary” faction of voters, those who see a Clinton presidency as four more years of Obama policy and priorities. However, he defies the lesson the GOP thought it learned after the defeat of its presidential nominee Governor Mitt Romney in 2012, namely that no candidate wins the presidency relying on the angry white man vote. However, the sleeping tiger of blue collar men that Trump has awakened is not enough to win the White House. He must pull independents – both moderate and conservative – as well as 18 to 35 year olds, a solid percentage of Hispanics and African Americans, and at least some portion of the female vote across all of those demographics. Polls show more than 65 percent of women interviewed “don’t like” Trump.

Clinton entered the primary juggernaut assuming she would inherit the Obama voter base, which is women, African Americans, Hispanics, and a good chunk of the 18 to 25 demographic. Sanders, while failing to attract most black and Latino voters, upset the Clinton machine by attracting younger women and millennials. Perhaps most vexing to Clinton is how her support from African American and Hispanic voters eroded over time, going from more than 60 percent to less than 45 percent over the last several months, while recent polling shows 58 percent of all women surveyed say they “don’t like her.” Her challenge is to convince Sanders supporters she is the Trump alternative and to get Sanders to publicly endorse her at the Democratic National Convention and urge his base to vote Clinton in November.

Both candidates are challenged now to unify their parties after some of the bitterest primary campaigning on record. Trump’s “row” is the much harder one to hoe. While Clinton needs to make Sanders happy – a rollicking Trump defeat fits that bill along with prominence in a Clinton administration – Trump goes into the July 18 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, with his party’s leadership less than thrilled with his candidacy. More than a few GOP stalwarts are wondering if the man is conservative enough while several prominent GOPers publicly oppose his candidacy. One sure sign of Republican ambivalence is the startling number of Republican members of Congress who have no intention of attending their party’s national convention lest they be tied to Trump.

Having pulled off enough primary wins to effectively lock up his party’s nomination on the first ballot – avoiding an open convention – Trump’s threats of lawsuits and other actions have disappeared. However, what is very real and very damaging is that Romney as well as former White House aspirant Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush, and former presidential hopeful Governor Jeb Bush all refuse to endorse Trump, fueling the “Never Trump” machine.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he will support and vote for Trump while Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) wants to meet with Trump. Reince Priebus, RNC chair, declared Trump the party’s presumptive nominee even as former Vice President Dick Cheney said he will vote for Trump as the party’s nominee.

Trump’s late-May Washington, DC, foray to meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was explicitly designed to court GOP congressional leadership, lining up as many public endorsements and commitments to attend as he can before the July convention. However, establishment party confidence in a Trump candidacy is still elusive in the House of Representatives. Trump was stung by Ryan’s mid-May announcement that he “wasn’t ready” to endorse Trump, pending a meeting with the candidate to find out just where the New York businessman stands on issues important to Ryan and, by extension, to elected Republican lawmakers. Given the nominee’s influence over GOP convention operations, Ryan even said he would step down as convention chair if Trump asked him to. Several analysts said Ryan – like many of his colleagues – would just as soon avoid Cleveland.

Right now, the critical unifying move for both Clinton and Trump is the selection of a vice president candidate. Clinton needs to select a running mate who will toe the Clinton line on policy positions, specifically let her drift back toward center left while appealing to the broader Democrat base some contend is slipping away from her. She also needs to shore up support in key swing states. Observers say 74-year-old Sanders is not an option for the “heartbeat away” position and the much-discussed notion of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is overhyped in the press. While Warren is more left than Clinton on several issues, she brings no strong political advantage, is too “East Coast,” and some argue the two politicians on a national party ticket is not unique or advantageous. The list of possible candidates who meet most of Clinton’s priorities include relatively unknown Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a liberal key swing state lawmaker; either Senator Tim Kaine or Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, an increasingly important state; or sitting Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, a young Texan who could shore up the Hispanic vote. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is also talked about.

For Trump, the challenge is to find a running mate who is willing to stand with the real estate executive and who brings gravitas to the ticket, not unlike the challenge faced by a relatively inexperienced Obama in 2008 with his selection of then-veteran Senator Joe Biden as a running mate. Trump recognizes he lacks political experience and credibility with Capitol Hill, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs. The presumptive nominee has said he will be looking for a vice president who is a known quantity on the Hill, someone who can broker deals. Heading the vice presidential search is Dr. Ben Carson, once a Trump primary opponent.

Among the names insiders toss out are Trump’s former primary opponents Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, and Governor John Kasich. The question here is can any or all of them shrug off the personal and political attacks of primary season in the interest of party unity and accept the number two spot on the ticket. Of the three, Kasich brings the most political advantage to the ticket, hailing from Ohio with a congressional and gubernatorial record of problem solving.

Another name floated is Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions who was one of the first sitting senators to endorse Trump and who is now Trump’s chief foreign policy advisor and head of the candidate’s foreign policy team. Also mentioned is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a known political dealmaker but with considerable political baggage of his own and little foreign policy experience. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey makes the list having already been named Trump’s head of transition should he win in November, yet most think Christie covets the attorney general slot over the vice presidency.

Turning to sitting governors, rising GOP star Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, a woman from the South who checks off a number of boxes to balance a Trump ticket, was an early favorite but Trump appears to have dismissed the possibility. New Mexico Governor Susan Martinez, who could appeal to women and Hispanic voters, has been critical of Trump and says she is not interested. Also at least talked about are Florida Governor Rick Scott, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona, and Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada.

Both campaigns have pivoted, increasingly taking each other head on. Clinton takes the occasional swipe at Sanders and Trump strays off message to attack this or that critic of his style and statements. No one is surprised by predictions that this run for the White House will be the ugliest in recent memory. However, both candidates are battle tested and can give as good as they get.

For Clinton, she needs to reassert her executive image but also needs to project greater personality and credibility, keeping in mind less than 35 percent of the voting public find her trustworthy. She cannot afford to allow Trump to get to her with personal attacks and the re-dredging of issues long thought buried. She needs to stay above the fray, incrementally moving her campaign back to center left where she has long been comfortable and where the voters expect her to be. However, she is embracing some Sanders’ priorities as the convention nears, evidenced by her reversal on Medicare buy-ins for seniors. Clinton will need to identify the when and how she distances herself from Obama’s record, mitigating the concern among undecided Republicans and independents that a Clinton presidency is a simple extension of an Obama presidency.

For Trump, he must win key blue states from Clinton with New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida targeted for major efforts given his strong showing in those states’ primaries. It is also time for him to dial down the made-for-TV rhetoric, end the personal attacks, and focus on issues and policies, particularly as they relate to the economy, the perennial top priority of the vast majority of voters. Surrogates for the New York City businessman increasingly say the “real” Trump is intelligent, thoughtful, measured, and eagerly seeks advice and counsel from those he respects and that post-convention a different Trump will emerge, one who talks specific issues and problem remedies. He will continue to attack, they say, but only on Clinton’s record and her policies and positions. As president, says Gingrich, Trump will surprise with his cabinet selections.

Pre-convention, very few out there can say with any specificity exactly where Trump stands on issues ranging from trade to health care to tax reform. It is no secret a lot of voters across the country wish there was a “none of the above” box to tick on their November 8 presidential ballot, with fully 15 to 18 percent of most poll respondents saying they intend to vote for “another candidate” or not vote at all. The rumblings of a third-party candidate emerging post-convention continue, with Cruz saying in mid-May he would reconsider the suspension of his campaign “if things change” with Trump. However, a third candidate, particularly one coming from the far right, siphons votes from the Republican side of the scoreboard, making a Clinton victory more of a certainty.

Having said all of that, as of mid-May, Clinton is predicted to beat Trump in the general election by anywhere from four to 13 points, depending on the poll. However, as this presidential cycle has shown time and again, polls can be wrong – dramatically so – and conventional wisdom ain’t what it used to be. Clinton’s lead over Trump is narrowing significantly now that the voting public is focusing on just two candidates, not 17.

So, what do we know for sure? That the old rules do not apply. Odds makers expect the unexpected and at the end of the day November 8, it is the candidate who garners 270 or more Electoral College votes who gets to call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home for the next four years.

June 2016 RENDER | back