Unpopularity contest.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Clinton Has a Weakness. That's Trump's Only Hope.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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There are two ways that Donald Trump can become president. Either he must become significantly more popular among general-election voters. Or his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, must become significantly more unpopular.

It won't take long for Trump to figure out which is the more promising path.

Right now, flush with optimism after a stunning victory over more than a dozen primary foes, Trump's campaign has both goals in sight. Trump is hoping to rally conservatives and independents behind his candidacy. In his victory speech after the Indiana primary last week, Trump magnanimously refrained from calling defeated Senator Ted Cruz a liar, or implying that Cruz's father aided the assassination of an American president. It was a veritable charm offensive.

Yet there are stark limits to Trump's appeal. His genuine political talent is utterly divorced from anything resembling wisdom. He remains offensive to multiple blocs of voters and ignorant of public policy. His unfavorable ratings -- especially the number of Americans who hold a "strongly unfavorable" view of him -- are, as Harry Enten of fivethirtyeight.com wrote, from "another planet."

In polling from late March through late April, Enten reported, Trump's aggregate "strongly unfavorable" figure was 53 percent. That is, by spring, a majority of Americans were already strongly opposed to him. If you add his strongly favorable (positive) rating to his strongly unfavorable (negative) rating, the net is overwhelmingly negative, about minus 40.

Mario Cuomo said that successful politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Trump campaigns in Fahrenheit, but polls in Kelvin.

The one relatively warm spot for Trump in a chilly electorate is Clinton. She, too, is unpopular. Add her strongly favorable rating to her strongly unfavorable, and Clinton nets about minus 20. It's not other-worldly like Trump's. But it's bad.

The question for Trump, then, is how to exploit her weakness.

Clinton has been subjected to a quarter century of political and personal attacks, many of them vicious, more than a few outlandish. For every smear of President Barack Obama as a Kenyan anticolonial socialist or terrorist enabler, Clinton can probably cite two similarly inspired delusions -- that she killed White House aide Vincent Foster or, for reasons no one ever seems able to explain, that she preferred to let a handful of Americans die in Benghazi rather than use her powers as secretary of State to protect them.

But the differences between Obama and Clinton are at least as telling as the similarities. More than half of Americans consistently have rated Obama "honest and trustworthy" during his presidency. Of nine Gallup measurements taken between 2008 and 2015, Obama fell below 50 percent only once, in 2014. In April 2008, the spring of his first campaign for president, 60 percent of Gallup respondents said Obama was honest and trustworthy.

By contrast, in a March 2016 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 37 percent of adults agreed that Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy, and 57 percent said they don't think she is. Even Democrats aren't sold. In Wisconsin, where Bernie Sanders defeated her on April 5, exit polls showed only 57 percent of Democratic voters rated her honest and trustworthy. Two weeks later in her home state of New York, which she won, only 60 percent of Democrats leaving the polls said she was honest and trustworthy.

Neither Sanders in 2016, nor Obama in 2008, aggressively attacked Clinton's integrity. She finds herself in this hole as a result of conservative attacks on her and of doubts she raised by her own actions. History weighs on her.

Clinton's six-figure speeches to Wall Street, after she left the Obama administration, ring the cash register a bit louder because they echo the questions dating from her trading of cattle futures, in the late 1970s. Her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of State, and the convoluted excuses it has engendered, is reminiscent of previous instances when this strikingly intelligent, detail-oriented professional claimed, in so many words, to be relying on the kindness of strangers.

The vast right-wing conspiracy against the Clintons is no dark fantasy. For more than two decades, it has been a concrete blot on the political landscape. Her resort to private e-mail was in all likelihood an effort to dodge those prying partisan eyes. Avoiding one trap, she entered another.  

At Clinton's landmark April 1994 White House news conference on Whitewater and "Hillarycare" and cattle futures and whatever else fit the catch-all portfolio of this path-breaking First Lady,  a reporter asked, "Is there a fundamental distrust of the Clintons in America?"

The question, 22 years later, is still live. Trump is unlikely to gain traction against Clinton arguing about experience or temperament or preparedness or ideas. She overwhelms him on every count. Given his voluminous record of falsehoods, breathtaking at the presidential level of politics, he probably can't win a contest on integrity either. But Trump is a very successful bully. He intuitively understands weakness. He will find a way to hurt her.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net