The voter in the 2016 presidential election is faced with flawed candidates from the two major parties. Polling consistently reflects an electorate that is unenthusiastic about either candidate. Hillary Clinton is viewed unfavorably by over 50% of the electorate. Donald Trump’s unfavorable percentage is even worse at nearly 60%. One recent poll reported Clinton at 55% and Trump at 63% unfavorable - unprecedented in a presidential election.
Faced with such an undesirable choice many voters are looking for alternatives. In the extreme there are rumors of Hillary Clinton’s health issues forcing her out to be replaced by Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side it is rumored Trump will quit the race to be replaced by a rescuing hero/heroine riding in on a stallion. These far reaching scenarios are very unlikely near fantasies.
Some voters will sit out the election. Their votes withheld in the hope of sending a message that might in the long term result in change. Polling indicates about 6% of registered voters will take this path.
A larger percentage of voters, over 15%, are considering third party candidates in the hope of besting the result of the 1992 election. In 1992, independent Ross Perot received about 20% of the presidential ballots cast. He held Bill Clinton to 43% and George H.W. Bush to only 37%. Perot probably could have done better, but for dysfunction in his campaign, as polling indicated his support was as high as 38%.
The two third party candidacies of Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) and Jill Stein (Green Party) are polling at about 7-9% and 3-5% respectively. These candidates have little to no chance of winning the election. Their only path is to cause a windfall in their favor through participation in presidential debates. To participate in those debates they must achieve an average of 15% in 5 recent national polls before August 15th. As they will not likely meet that bar, voting for either will end up a protest vote.
Many voters view protest votes as votes thrown away. For those voters a hard choice must be made. And that choice, unfortunately, is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton represents the status quo in economic, foreign, and defense policy, as well as the political culture. She is viewed as untrustworthy by as much as 73% of the electorate according to polling. She carries personal baggage, along with her husband, that portend an administration that would be constantly embroiled in scandal if past is prologue. The Clintons, historically entrenched in a distorted system of campaign finance of pay-to-play, are not likely to confront it.
The Clinton campaign has put aside arguments that Trump is unqualified to be president. He cannot be attacked successfully as unqualified for the presidency because President Obama had no qualifications to be President. Trump’s opponents now focus on fitness and temperament. It is working because Trump has validated this strategy through his own actions.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, though they are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, both tapped into public sentiment that rejects the economic and political status quo. Polling indicates as many as 72% of likely voters think the country is on the wrong track. Populists, they garnered the support of a portion of the electorate that is willing to look for answers far outside the political class of both parties.
Donald Trump was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of popular discontent and capture his party’s nomination. He won the primary by running an unconventional campaign. His opponents lost by not recognizing the discontent within their own party. Reflecting the adage – publicity is good whether negative or positive – Trump was able to manipulate the media and receive enormous free exposure. His “I’m not them” theme remains valid and appealing to many voters, but the tactics of the primary will not work in the general election.
Some would say the general election is Trump’s to lose despite the many advantages the Clinton campaign held in demographics, money, and organization. A discontented electorate is ripe for a disruptive election, particularly with such an unpopular and distrusted opponent.
Trump appeared to be making a strategy shift in his convention acceptance speech. He outlined principles that gave him a near 10% bump in polling and his delivery raised his stock among many voters. Some polls placed him in a tie or ahead of Clinton following the convention. It appeared that Mr. Trump was changing direction and could potentially advance a respectable campaign that could win and disrupt the status quo.
Following the convention Mr. Trump returned to the tactics that allowed him to win the primary and he is suffering mightily as a result. Unenthusiastic voters willing to take a risk with him to upset the Washington D.C. apple cart were turned off by missteps that validated the negative personality traits and uninformed loose talk his opponents emphasize as their campaign strategy to defeat him.
Trump, in his recent endorsement of House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican candidates, may finally be accepting the advice delivered from many quarters that his approach is not working and may have irreparably harmed him. If he is unwilling or incapable of the discipline necessary to stay on message and avoid any activity (e.g. personal Tweeting and off the cuff responses) that appears “un-presidential” he will further decline in polling and suffer a tremendous defeat.
It is clear the electorate is dissatisfied with the direction of the country and would elect an outsider candidate to disrupt the status quo. Hillary Clinton is an unpopular and distrusted candidate who represents the status quo. However, Donald Trump may be incapable of defeating her even in these most ripe of conditions.
Does one accept the status quo and vote for Clinton feeling very strongly that her election will solidify a course of public policy so many indicate they reject as the proper course for the nation? Does one vote for Trump in the hope of disrupting the status quo through a candidate so unpredictable, who does not seem able thus far to muster the demeanor and discipline necessary to convey the minimum of confidence in the voter that he can be presidential?
That is the quandary many voters face and time is running out for the Trump campaign to convince voters to take a risk with him.