This summer, America’s two major political parties will likely nominate the most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The voters’ fierce discontent with both of their options will make the fall campaign nasty and expensive, many analysts and political scientists think. American voters are likely to see a multibillion-dollar onslaught of negative ads and personal attacks, messages that will be unusually ferocious.
Yet it isn’t clear whether those messages will make much of a difference in the outcome.
Clinton and Trump are so well-known, and opinions so locked in, that the coming White House campaign may not change many minds at all.
“These are two people who have been in the public spotlight for so long, literally decades, that a lot of opinions are going to be set in stone,” said Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based Republican consultant.
If Keller is right, it could be good news for Clinton: the Democrat has led public opinion polls for months, and she is less unpopular than Trump. On Thursday, one online oddsmaker gave the former secretary of state a 70 percent chance of winning the presidency, compared with 26 percent odds for the New York businessman.
Polling averages now give Clinton a six- to seven-point lead.
Yet many outsiders urge caution. Trump’s nomination victory has disrupted the electorate, they say, and voters seem willing to at least give the flamboyant billionaire a hearing.
Trump, they remind us, was in the low single digits in polls taken nearly a year ago, when he entered the race.
“No one predicted he would win the Republican nomination,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican and lukewarm Trump supporter. “The Clinton campaign is not excited about Donald Trump being the nominee.”
Indeed, the political battlefield is littered with the bodies of pundits who misjudged Trump’s chances against more-experienced rivals in the GOP primaries.
“He is so far out of realm of what we’re used to as a political candidate,” explained Brian Calfano, a political science professor at Missouri State University. “That has been a secret to his success.”
If Trump is to prevail, current polls show he will have to figure out how to move voters from the undecided column, or away from Clinton, almost immediately. History suggests it’s a tall order, but not impossible.
There have been 14 presidential elections since 1960, and 11 times, the May leader in national polls won in November – evidence that many voters lock in during the primary season and rarely change during the fall campaign.
Three times, though, the May leader lost in November.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter comfortably led likely Republican nominee Ronald Reagan in the spring but lost that fall. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton trailed President George H.W. Bush in May, but eventually won.
And most famously, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis led Bush by double digits six months before the 1988 election. Bush eventually won by almost eight points, a landslide.
Trump will need a similar comeback.
Trump can still win this. He has the energy.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
“Trump can still win this,” U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said on MSNBC. “He has the energy.”
Yet there are key differences between the Trump and Dukakis campaigns.
Dukakis was largely unknown by voters in 1988, even after the primaries. The Bush campaign, led by a then-obscure strategist named Lee Atwater, was able to exploit that unfamiliarity by tagging Dukakis as weak on crime, the military, even the U.S. flag.
And Dukakis underperformed as a national candidate, famously posing for a picture in a tank, wearing an oversized helmet that quickly became the subject of ridicule.
He showed little emotion when answering a debate question about the hypothetical murder of his wife. He had no answer ready when Bush accused him of hating the Pledge of Allegiance or giving a prison furlough to a murder suspect.
But Bush’s negative strategies worked, political scientists say, only because so few voters knew Dukakis’ record or background. Many voters withheld their judgments until the closing weeks of the fall campaign, when the negative attacks reached their peak.
By contrast, almost all voters have made up their minds about Trump and Clinton.
Clinton has been a fixture of national politics for more than two decades, including eight years as first lady. Trump has been on television for years and has dominated cable television coverage and the conversation on social media.
Much of the electorate has accumulated enough information to come to a conclusion as to whom they prefer.
Robynn Kuhlmann, political science professor at the University of Central Missouri
“Much of the electorate has accumulated enough information to come to a conclusion as to whom they prefer,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri.
There are ways to dislodge those preconceptions, some strategists believe, but just a few.
One is an unexpected event: a foreign policy crisis, for example. Carter’s 1980 lead against Reagan faded as the Iran hostage crisis dragged on through the campaign, angering voters.
A third candidate can change outcomes as well. Clinton surged ahead of Bush in 1992, for example, after Ross Perot entered the race as a third-party candidate.
Some Republicans – Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, for example – have hinted at a third-party effort in recent days.
Legal trouble for Clinton could change the campaign’s dynamics as well, as could a poor debate performance by either candidate. The conventions, and each candidate’s choice for a running mate, might sway significant numbers of voters.
And Trump may provide some unforeseen moments of his own.
“You never know what events are going to happen between now and then,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said last week. Blunt has said he will support Trump as the GOP nominee but does not plan to attend the Republican convention.
Blunt’s opponent, Democrat Jason Kander, says Trump is “unfit to be president.”
Without a disrupting event or major course correction, though, the two campaigns are left with few options in the next six months, analysts said.
They could target a handful of undecided voters in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“The clear, simple messaging from the Trump campaign may work well with them,” Kuhlmann said, particularly among those she called low-interest late deciders who may not have paid attention in the early stages of the campaign.
The other choice is to focus on hard-core base supporters who will turn out and cast ballots. Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said the election will be decided by turnout, not by undecided voters.
The most important task in a presidential election is getting your decideds out to vote. That’s more important than the undecideds, because they’re so small. That’s where the campaign makes a difference.
Bob Beatty, Washburn University political science professor
“The most important task in a presidential election is getting your decideds out to vote,” he said. “That’s more important than the undecideds, because they’re so small. That’s where the campaign makes a difference.”
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, Beatty said, is the model for turning out committed supporters.
But campaigns that rely on turning out their core supporters typically pursue a companion strategy: drive down turnout for the opponent. Keller, the consultant, said he expects Trump to examine that approach in the weeks ahead by trying to make Clinton more unpopular than she already is.
“This is not a guy who is going to be able to credibly pivot to the center after so long in the public eye,” Keller said. “I would go relentlessly negative. You want to drive down voter participation numbers as much as you possibly can.”
Kuhlmann expects a similar dynamic.
“Trump can certainly dig up, repackage and sling Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades at Hillary,” she said. “It will be very difficult for Clinton to keep her hands clean from the mud.”
Yet Trump’s own problems are well-known and easily exploited by Democrats. They’ve already started producing video ads using other Republicans’ words against the candidate, from “liar” to “bully” to “sexist” and beyond.
And Trump’s own personal history, including three marriages and four corporate bankruptcies, will likely end up on television ads.
“The numbers are bleak, and given Trump’s 100 percent name ID and decades of cultural ubiquity, they are unlikely to change dramatically,” conservative columnist Liam Donovan wrote last week.
The polling numbers are indeed bleak for both candidates.
In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of those surveyed said they had “very negative” views of Clinton. Only one person in the survey had higher negatives: Donald Trump. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed rendered a “very negative” verdict on the Republican.
The combined unfavorable ratings for Clinton and Trump are triple those of Reagan and opponent Walter Mondale. Double those of Obama and Mitt Romney. Al Gore, John Kerry, Bob Dole, John McCain, Carter – all had far lower unfavorable ratings than either current presidential candidate.
Those results, combined with the 2016 political environment – diffuse media, billions in campaign cash, two extraordinarily well-known candidates with the highest negative ratings ever, a deeply polarized electorate – may give America the most brutal campaign season of the modern era.
“Six months of fear and loathing lie ahead,” Boston political analyst Jon Keller said in a column this week. “May the least horrible candidate win.”