Why is Hillary polling so badly?

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 21-

This week:

  • Trump is consolidating a still-unhappy base
  • Clinton is extraordinarily weak
  • The Democratic Party is still weaker than you think

Everyone is keyed into Republicans’ troubles uniting around Donald Trump. But why does Hillary Clinton poll so badly against someone so uniquely unqualified for the presidency? More, why does she keep underperforming in primaries even now, when she essentially has the Democratic nomination locked up already?

The other looming question seemed to resolve itself last week, with Mitt Romney ending his search for a third candidate. Still, the polling suggests that such a candidate would be welcomed by many voters on both sides.

President 2016

Rally ‘round the flag: By winning the early endorsement of the NRA, Trump has coopted conservatism’s most successful grassroots organization. Given how well-trusted the NRA is on the Right, it’s an important step for him in gaining broader acceptance within the Republican universe.

To be sure, it appears that with the exception of a significant minority of reliable conservative voters, Trump has nearly consolidated the GOP base. He is now in the process of reaching out to donors as well, who may find themselves on the hook for paying back the loans he made to his own campaign.

Although many of the Republicans now telling pollsters they are willing to vote for Trump seem not terribly happy about it — more about this below — they still seem ready to do it. Of course, that’s all that matters to him at the end of the day.

Trump’s problem in November will lie in the fact that he is so unpopular outside of the minority/plurality that is currently willing to vote for him. It’s a very long climb for someone as widely hated as Trump from the mid-40s to 50 percent. Then again, on a state-by-state basis, third-party candidates could consume enough of the vote in an election like this one that he doesn’t have to. Clinton is not exactly Miss Congeniality herself.

For now, Trump seems on target to avoid the embarrassing defeat that many still expect — and which is still quite possible, depending on how the New York State lawsuit against him unfolds, or on how his antics go over in a general election, or if information emerges suggesting he has very substantially exaggerated his wealth.

Then again, when the race starts off this close, you start to wonder if there is anything that can actually stop the man, and whether the unexpected turns might actually end up working in his favor. What if a terrorist attack changes everything late in the game and makes his tough talk attractive to more voters? What if Clinton actually does get indicted?

A race that has been so unpredictable up to now once again radiates that strange feeling that almost anything could happen.

So there’s a chance? Trump’s fans were quick to jump on the rather shocking Fox News poll showing him leading Clinton, 45 to 42 percent. It represented a sizeable shift from Clinton’s seven-point lead in the same poll a month before. It seemed like an outlier.

As Michael Barone noted, the poll’s most important feature was not Trump’s lead, but Clinton’s surprisingly weak performance. And his comments remained just as correct the following day, when the Washington Post released a poll showing basically the exact same thing — Trump leading Clinton 46 to 44 — again within the margin of error, but still with a lead, and having reversed a nine-point Clinton lead in the poll’s late March iteration.

We have been writing for more than a year about Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, and it seems to be showing through here. Democratic voters continue to hand victories to Bernie Sanders at this late date, in spite of the hopelessness of his candidacy, because she is a genuinely repellent candidate, much like Trump but for a completely different set of reasons. Many Republicans argued during the GOP primary that Trump was the only candidate who could lose to Clinton. But if Sanders has a case to make to Californians and other voters remaining, and to the superdelegates who will decide the nomination at convention, it is that Clinton is the only candidate who can lose to Trump.

Clinton doesn’t just lack basic political retail skills. She is also an insincere person. She has changed with respect to her principles (consider her total reversal on international trade, for example), and has been caught in multiple bold-faced lies just in recent months.

Clinton has a history of venality — especially of her and her husband being overpaid for speeches by people and corporations and foreign powers that had (or have) something to gain — and Sanders has brought this up on the trail and in debate repeatedly. He has been more sparing on the email issue. These are not endearing qualities of Clinton, and they are certainly not attractive to voters.

Democratic weakness: So much for Clinton’s personal problems as a candidate. But there is also a structural party issue to bring up here. No matter who took the Democratic nomination this year, we’ve known all along that it could not be Barack Obama. This fact matters, because Obama’s personal appeal holds a unique place in the theory of recent political history to which we subscribe. Recall that throughout Obama’s presidency, Democrats have not enjoyed any significant electoral successes where his name has not actually been on the ballot. (Note that the 2013 Virginia governor’s race seems like an exception, but it really isn’t. They very nearly lost that race even amidst the government shutdown and with the sitting Republican governor on the verge of a corruption indictment.)

Obama is special. He has been the Democrats’ rock-star candidate, and his popularity has not been transferrable to other Democrats, even in cases where he personally showed up to campaign for them. (Remember Martha Coakley? Jon Corzine? Mike Michaud? Neither do we.)

Democrats sans Obama have amassed a terrible election record. That’s why today they control only 18 of 50 governorships, only 30 out of 99 state legislative chambers, only 188 U.S. House seats, and enjoy full party control in only seven states.

Obama’s party did quite well down-ballot in 2008, and well enough in 2012 although not spectacularly. But its dramatic losses in 2009 (Virginia and New Jersey), 2010 (midterm), 2014 (the midterm), 2015 (Kentucky governor) and 2016 (Wisconsin Supreme Court) all hint at one of two possible conclusions. One is simply that Democrats don’t vote in off-year elections. The other, however, which is not inconsistent with the first, is that they are a party in near-term decline that has been propped up by a single figure who will soon exit political life for good.

One reason for Obama’s success is his personal attraction as a candidate. This is hard to replicate. Perhaps equally hard to replicate is a second reason: He drove black turnout to levels never seen before in 2008, and even in 2012 to levels well above the historical norm.

The looming question for Democrats this cycle has been eclipsed by Trump’s rise, but it remains: Can someone as uninspiring as Clinton draw turnout anywhere near these levels? Or can she (or he) inspire other voting groups (including white liberals who fit the Bernie Sanders profile, or white women who don’t normally vote Democratic) to vote Democratic in such large numbers as to make up the difference?

Trump viable? It has long been the expectation of the entire pundit class that a ham sandwich could defeat Trump. And Clinton probably will still surge ahead of him once the Democratic nomination process officially ends.

But the fact that it’s already looking so close, and not like the Goldwater-esque landslide that most people expect, is a rather important development. What seems to have developed, as the below-the-topline numbers in the polls suggest, is a race to the bottom. Clinton’s venality and mendacity are making an unexpectedly strong challenge to Trump’s manifest ignorance and mean-spirited xenophobia.

So, how do the break-outs look? In the Washington Post poll, Trump is taking 85 percent of Republicans to Clinton’s 86 percent of Democrats. His unfavorable rating has fallen to 57 percent, and hers has risen to exactly the same number. Her “very unfavorable” clocks in just a hair ahead of his (46 percent vs. 45 percent for Trump). Clinton voters are exactly evenly split between those who support her for her own sake, and those supporting her mainly to stop Trump. A majority Trump’s voters (53 percent of them) are backing him primarily to stop Clinton. Only 13 percent of those not supporting Trump now would consider doing so, and a statistically identical 12 percent of people not currently supporting Clinton would consider supporting her.

Voters’ discontent with their choices shines through in a few results. Fifty-one percent say a third party candidate is needed. And in a hypothetical three-way matchup involving Mitt Romney, it gets interesting: Romney draws 22 percent, and then Trump and Clinton poll within the margin of error of one another, at 35 and 37 percent, respectively.

The fact that both Clinton and Trump support plunges in such a scenario really does speak volumes. So does the fact that only 33 percent of Republican voters say they want Trump as their nominee, and only 56 percent of Democrats (in a two-way race, remember) want Clinton even now, when both have essentially sewn up their respective parties’ nominations.

Clinton does more poorly than one might expect on issues and attributes that the Post polled. Trump is the clear loser on some: Clinton wins on having the right experience to be president (65 to 26 percent), on temperament (59 to 33 percent) and on “more realistic” proposals (57 to 34 percent). Moreover, he loses narrowly (50 to 44 percent) on his signature issue of immigration.

However, Trump edges out Clinton on the issue of the economy (48 to 45 percent) and beats her handily on trade (49 to 42 percent), an issue on which she has pandered and changed positions at the cost of some credibility.

Trump surprisingly does much better on taxes (51 to 38 percent) and unsurprisingly as the person more likely to bring “needed change” to Washington (53 to 39 percent).

What does it all mean? It means we might actually have a race on our hands.

Buckle your seat belts.