Hillary Clinton has integrity issues. FBI Director James Comey’s press conference last week highlighted the perception that Hillary, and the Clinton’s in general, walk a fine line between untrustworthy and criminal. This, more than anything else, is why a majority of Americans dislike Hillary. Poll after poll bears this out; and they have for a very long time.
She’s so unpopular, in fact, that in any other election cycle it’s pretty clear she’d lose the race despite the significant demographic advantages built into the national electorate and the electoral college that favor the Democratic Party’s candidate.
This isn’t other years though. Instead, she’s running against a historically inept and polarizing candidate. Trump’s lack of fundraising (to date), TV ad buys, constant twitter gaffes, racist and misogynist rants, campaign staff turmoil, and his general lack of strategic political awareness—like identifying actual swing states—mean that Clinton is the favorite.
This is also why “Establishment Republicans” can’t stand Trump. More than his ugliness or his lack of orthodox conservative positions, he’s the one person who can make a candidate with Hillary’s polling numbers a prohibitive favorite. This was a very winnable presidential election for the GOP but they find themselves face-to-face with a nominee who undercuts their basic raison d’être.
All of that said, Clinton is the favorite, not yet the winner. And she has a ways to go before converting what seems to be a layup into actual points. There are four ways (at least) that Clinton can still lose the election to Trump.
1. The media has a vested interest (you could call it a bias) in a competitive campaign.
This isn’t some vast conspiracy. It’s the reality of institutional bias. Media companies need to make money. In television, like on the internet, money is made through advertising. Advertising space (be it a banner ad or a 30 second TV spot) is only valuable if there are people interacting with the advertising platform: Reading your website or watching your show. This will lead to “horse race” coverage because viewers/readers are drawn in by a sense of urgency.
Given Trump’s unprecedented media coverage already, it’s reasonable to assume that he’ll continue to win the race for airtime. Earned national media is not the same as targeted ad buys in swing states, or that’s certainly what Clinton’s team is banking on. Trump’s strategy, as much as you could call it that, will put that to the test: Can historic national media attention lead to voter turnout?
2. Aside from Trump, Clinton is the least popular presumptive nominee of a major party on record.
This doesn’t mean they’re the two most unpopular nominees in American history—though, in theory, that is possible. Because we don’t have reliable, or any, polling data for most of the presidential elections on record, we can’t really make those comparisons. Nonetheless, Clinton’s ability to motivate and turnout general election voters at the same rate as President Obama did in 2012 is still very much in doubt. Which presents three scenarios: (1)If the Obama coalition of 2012 votes for Clinton, she doesn’t need a single traditionally Republican voter to leave Trump to win in a relative landslide. (2) If she turns-out the 2012 Obama voters + some percentage of disaffected Republicans, she’ll win in an outright landslide. (3) If, on the other hand, the 2012 Obama voters stay home or vote Third Party in any meaningful way Trump is in the ballgame.
3. Clinton’s campaign has the much harder messaging task.
This might seem counterintuitive, but Trump’s appeal to voters is pretty simple: “The system is the object of our collective anger. Hillary Clinton is the system. Help me [Trump] beat Clinton in the campaign, and destroy the system once in office.” It also happens to be a pretty powerful message that is motivating millions of people on the left and the right.
He’s also been very effective at motivating racist elements to participate in the national conversation. On the other hand, Clinton’s only option is to defend “the system”, and her ability to lead and reform it where needed. Trump’s message leads to soundbites and headlines, Clinton’s message leads policy proposals and white papers.
4. The scrutiny on the two campaigns will be unequal.
It already is, actually. Trump has successfully pushed the line of reasonability so far that the minor infringements now basically go unchecked. He tried to associate Ted Cruz’s father with the JFK assassination. Predictably, and rightly, the media response to this was swift. He frequently retweets white supremacists and/or anti-semitic memes. These basically serve as bait-and-switch diversions for Trump however. He’s able to explain his bizarre behavior as opposed to having to talk about complex policy issues like Scotland’s vote in Brexit, or what the nuclear triad is, or that Trump was in favor of the Iraq War back in 2002 but now says he was against it all along. All of these things, and much more, go forgotten in Trump’s twilight zone.
Clinton does not have this “luxury.” She doesn’t say or do absurd things. Instead, she’s coldly rational and calculated. Because of her demeanor every phrase is parsed for inconsistency or factual error and when she does make mistakes, they’re caught quickly and she’s taken to task for them.
Trump has shown very little ability to capitalize on any of these more structural or technical factors and it is still, in every way, Clinton’s election to lose. But in a season of uncertainty and anger Trump represents the zeitgeist in ways that Clinton is fundamentally incapable of — Trump brags (and lies) about his wealth and encourages others to aspire to it; Clinton tries to hide hers. Trump is openly contemptuous about the media; Clinton ignores them. Trump plays to people’s base emotions; Clinton is emotionless. In 2016, it’s foolish to discount these differences as trivial. They aren’t. The only question is: are they strong enough to overpower the ineptitude of Trump as a professional politician?