Election will be decided by independents who don’t like the candidates and favor change. Will they fear Trump more than 4 years of the same?
In the wake of Trump’s victory in Indiana, Democrats have been encouraged by recent polls that show Republican Donald Trump with the highest disapproval ratings for a presidential candidate on record. They’re equally gleeful at the possibility that the down-ballot effect of such an unpopular nominee could sweep them back into power in the White House, the Senate and the House. But Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings are almost as low as Trump’s, and far below where she was in 2008. What does it say about America when the all-but-certain major party nominees were the candidates with the worst approval ratings?
This year’s voters don’t seem to be following the script that Democrats are hoping for in November. A March Quinnipiac poll showed Trump was viewed unfavorably by 61%, compared to 47% for Ted Cruz and 20% for John Kasich. On the Democratic side, Clinton’s unfavorable number was 56%, against 37% for Bernie Sanders. In other words, the higher the disapproval rating, the more delegates the candidate already has in their pocket
Taken alone, that dynamic makes no sense. But when the data are broken down by party affiliation, the pattern vanishes. On the Republican side, the poll showed all three remaining candidates at around 62% favorability. The Gallup daily tracking poll even shows Trump with a double-digit favorability edge over his last two rivals going into the Indiana primary. Democrats approve of their candidates at around 80% in the March Quinnipiac poll and about 70% according to Gallup poll now. Despite lousy reputations broadly, buth Trump and Clinton are very popular where it counts: among party members who don’t have to wait until November to vote for them.
Hillary Clinton’s approval rankings used to be much higher. In May 2008 during her first quest for the Democratic nomination a Gallup poll put her favorability at a net positive, 54% favorable and 43% unfavorable. In May of 2012 when she was secretary of State, Gallup had her at 66% favorable to 29% unfavorable — a plus thirty-seven percentage point rating. Now, four years later, she has suffered a 54-point collapse to her current seventeen-point approval deficit. To paraphrase Barack Obama in 2008, Hillary just isn’t likeable enough anymore.
This fall from grace directly contradicts Clinton’s claim that she is more electable than Bernie Sanders. In a theoretical head to head matchup against Trump (and, for that matter, either of the two Republicans who just dropped out), the more likeable Sanders fares much better than the unpopular Clinton. Likewise, the personally popular but politically powerless John Kasich was the most competitive Republican.
But there is little point discussing Sanders vs. Trump because the matchup in November will be Clinton vs. Trump. Their cross-party favorability numbers reflect America’s continued political polarization. Democrats have a 90% unfavorable view of Trump, with 85% being strongly unfavorable. Republican negative sentiments about Clinton are almost identical. This tells us that crossover voting will not likely play a significant role in the election.
The 2016 race, like most others, will be decided by the political independents. Trump’s Quinnipiac favorability numbers showed him with a 24-point deficit with this group. However — and here’s where Clinton’s supporters need to take a deep breath — she was doing worse in this critical cohort than he was, at 36 points in the hole. Both remain deeply unpopular with independents.
The demographic breakdown is what you would expect, with Clinton leading among the young and non-whites, and Trump stronger with older voters and men. Clinton leads among women, but when it comes to white women — take another deep breath — her lead over Trump shrivels.
What this means is that the winner in November will be the person who can best appeal to political independents and moderates who are disgusted with business as usual politics in Washington and are seeking a change agent who will put the country on a new course. Whether they will ultimately rally behind a staid liberal Democrat who represents the status quo, or an outspoken Republican political disruptor remains to be seen. But Democrats banking on a landslide better not measure for drapes in the White House and speaker’s office just yet.
James S. Robbins writes weekly for USA Today and is author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns, go to the Opinion front page and follow us on Twitter @USATOpinion.