Clinton Risks Swing-State Backlash With ‘Deplorables’ Remark

‘Deplorables’ Remark or Health: What’s Worse for Clinton?
  • Trump moves to capitalize, saying it shows Clinton’s contempt
  • Democrat’s campaign retreats but doesn’t retract stance

Bob Polansky, who’s worked for the last half-century at the General Motors Lordstown Assembly Plant near Youngstown, Ohio, considers himself part of the fabric of America and not at all deplorable.

The 73-year-old self-described independent said he voted for both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, but he’s not happy with his choices for president this year. Polansky has been leaning toward Republican Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton nudged him further in that direction when she wrote off half of Trump’s backers as a “basket of deplorables.”

“She’s putting us in a category of we don’t know anything, we’re dummies and she knows what’s best for us,” Polansky said. “I know what’s best for my family; Hillary don’t.”

Polansky is the kind of voter both campaigns covet: working-class, from a swing state, with networks of friends, coworkers and family they can influence. That’s especially true in Polansky’s home state of Ohio, which polls show may be the closest of the battleground states in play.

For a Bloomberg QuickTake guide to swing states, click here.

Trump is moving, through television ads and speeches, to seize the brewing resentment among such voters over Clinton’s remarks, which were part of a riff at a fundraising event Friday night in New York. The Democratic nominee told a laughing, affirming audience of donors, including singer Barbra Streisand, that “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” She described them as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.”

Although she went on to characterize other Trump supporters as people who feel powerless, left behind in the economy and desperate for change, the backlash was immediate. Within hours, Clinton sought to dial back, though not retract, her statement by saying she was wrong to label “half” of Trump supporters that way. She redirecting her criticism toward Trump himself for making appeals to bigotry and embracing the support of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement.

The controversy was temporary sidelined by another stemming from questions about Clinton’s health and her failure to disclose that she’d been diagnosed with pneumonia. By Monday, Trump was giving it new life.

Advertising Buy

His campaign announced a $2 million advertising campaign using footage of the “deplorables” comment. It began airing Monday on broadcast and cable TV and was poised to run this week in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida. “You know what’s deplorable? Hillary Clinton viciously demonizing hardworking people like you,” the narrator of the ad says.

Campaigning in Baltimore on Monday, Trump said Clinton was “attacking Americans who have absolutely no political power” and showed contempt for people who “scratch out a living.” The Republican nominee said his rival acted with the “same sense of arrogance and entitlement” that resulted in questions about her e-mail and family foundation practices when she served as secretary of state. “She divides people into baskets as thought they were objects, not human beings,” he said.

Driving Resentment

While it’s too soon to fully assess how much political damage the “deplorables” remark will cause her, voters and strategists alike expressed frustration with Clinton’s tin ear. If the aim was to dissuade undecided voters from choosing Trump because they don’t want to be lumped in with racists and sexists, the delivery of the line may backfire by driving them toward the Republican nominee in anger.

“You don’t make comments about his support, you just don’t,” said Jim Graham, the former president of United Autoworkers Local 1112 at the GM Lordstown plant, and a Clinton supporter who is sticking with her.

“You’ve got some real good people supporting Trump for whatever reason,” Graham said. “If they start seeing through Trump to what this guy is, they may turn around and vote for her,” he said. “So why alienate those people? I just don’t understand.”

Debbie Fedor of Grove City in western Pennsylvania, a waitress and the daughter and granddaughter of steelworkers, is supporting Clinton and doesn’t think the comments will hurt her or cause more people to back Trump. “She was speaking the truth, really,” Fedor, 53, said. “Trump can say the most outrageous things, and she’s so held to a different standard than he is.”

Voter Perceptions

Clay Sanders, of Waverly, Ohio, 69, a retired chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, said he is leaning toward Clinton because of Trump’s lack of experience and temperament. But he said he worries it may be hard for Clinton to recover lost ground because she already was seen as somewhat aloof.

“I think she was trying to say something, but her choice of words was, in itself, deplorable,” Sanders said. “The only way Mrs. Clinton is going to connect is if she changes her presentation.”

Clinton and her surrogates are apologetic only to a point. While Clinton was taking the day off to rest, her running mate, Tim Kaine, on Monday carried the campaign’s argument that Trump’s divisive rhetoric, the anti-Clinton chants of “lock her up” at rallies and his support from white nationalist leaders and groups all are deplorable.

“Hillary spoke in a very blunt way and called those views out, and they need to be called out,” Kaine said at a news conference in Dayton, Ohio.

‘Non-Zero Number’

Campaign spokesman Brian Fallon, in an appearance Monday on CNN, said Clinton will compete for Trump’s supporters. Asked what percentage Clinton should have identified as deplorable if half was too high, Fallon said, “I don’t know,” but that “it’s certainly a non-zero number.”

Recent surveys show Republican voters moving toward Trump in key states as the race tightens, despite her persistent efforts to court Republicans by painting their nominee as outside the mainstream of their party. A Quinnipiac University survey released last week showed Trump winning 88 percent of Republicans in Florida, 91 percent in North Carolina and 86 percent in Ohio.

Trump is decisively ahead among white voters who don’t have more than a high-school education, but Clinton’s support among minorities gives her a slight lead among that group, according to a Purple Slice online poll for Bloomberg Politics released Sept. 8.

In a two-way contest, Trump is backed by 55 percent of whites with no more than a high-school degree, compared to 33 percent for Clinton. Yet among all likely voters who haven’t attended college, Clinton leads Trump 47 percent to 42 percent, thanks to support from 83 percent of non-white, no-college voters.

Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s 2008 state effort in Florida, said Clinton’s “deplorables” line was “unfortunate, and she was right to quickly own it.” But Schale said he doesn’t expect it will be pivotal.

“In this campaign, people are already in their corners,” he said. “Trump’s running log of offensive statements haven’t moved his supporters away, nor will this cost Clinton support. As odd of an election as this has become, it is also turning into a conventional one: Two fairly unified camps, and a relatively small number of actual undecideds.”

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