Instead of broadening appeal, both candidates are first having to hold on to their party’s base.
The upcoming Clinton-Trump matchup looks like a race in reverse. In normal presidential contests, candidates look to build from their base supporters into the electorate’s middle. In the coming one, the dynamic now is just the opposite: Both presumed nominees must strive to simply minimize the attrition in their party’s past support.
A nationwide Rasmussen poll released earlier this month (conducted 4/25-26, of 1,000 likely voters, MOE +/- 3%) provides invaluable insight into how different the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be. Both Clinton and Trump are well below majority support and tied at 38% apiece. Almost a quarter of respondents chose neither candidate, with 22% saying they would vote for someone else or stay home.
While these results may seem like outliers, the poll’s representation of three key voter groupings — gender, race, and Party — is extremely close to their representation in 2012 presidential exit polling.
The poll had 51% women and 49% men; 2012 exit polling had it 53% and 47%. Rasmussen had its racial composition as 73% White, 12% Black, and 15% Other (combined Hispanic, Asian, and Other); 2012 exit polling recorded it 72%, 13%, and 15%. Finally, the Rasmussen poll respondents were 35% Democratic, 33% Republican, and 32% Other; 2012 exit polling broke down 38%, 32%, 29%.
If the poll’s overall results were surprising, how they materialized — and how today’s results compare to 2012’s — is even more so.
Among women, Clinton held a 41%/35% advantage; among men, Trump held an identical 41%/35% lead. In 2012, Obama won women 55%/44%; Romney won men 52%/45%.
Among Whites, Trump led 43%/34%. Among Blacks, Clinton held a 57%/18% lead. Among Other, Clinton was ahead 44%/28%. In 2012, Romney won Whites 59%/39%, Obama won Blacks 93%/6%, and Obama won Other by 67%/30% (an average of each group’s percentage).
Finally by Party, Clinton led 75%/11% among Democrats. Among Republicans, Trump led 66%/10%. And among Other, Trump led 38%/27%. In 2012, Obama took Democrats 92%/7%, Romney won Republicans 93%/6%, and Romney took Other 50%/45%.
These three voter categories’ numbers show a war of attrition. For each group won by their Party’s nominee four years ago, Clinton and Trump are running behind those 2012 levels of support — by substantial amounts.
Instead of total support, the telling factor is differential: The fight is not so much to gain support, but to minimize the loss of it. Here too, the story is grim.
Trump’s positive differential among White voters is 11% less than Romney’s. However, this pales compared to Clinton’s 48% drop in differential from Obama’s among Blacks.
The same story holds when looking at voters by Party affiliation. Clinton’s net positive among Democrats is 21% less than Obama’s. Trump’s is an even larger 31% drop from Romney’s.
Only among Other party voters is there actual improvement. Here, Trump’s positive spread is 11% — twice Romney’s 5% spread.
These reduced positive spreads point to another front in the attrition war. The almost one-quarter of overall respondents saying they would vote for someone else or not vote at all is what causes both candidates’ positive spreads to fall.
This sentiment is particularly acute by race, where 25% of Blacks express these sentiments; among Other, 27% do. By political affiliation, the notable group is voters neither Democrat nor Republican. An incredible 31% of these “Other” party voters also said they would somehow avoid choosing either Clinton or Trump.
The final point in this war of attrition: Since Obama won in 2012, the current tie between Clinton and Trump means that Hillary is losing more ground so far.
The 2016 race looks to be a race in reverse compared to that usually seen in American presidential politics.
Normally, the successful candidate looks to hold their party’s roughly one-third of the electorate. Once nominated, the two candidates move to build additional support from the remaining one-third in the middle of America’s political spectrum.
However, 2016 looks to be anything but usual politics. Both frontrunners are losing significant percentages from their base — even as they close in on their party nominations. This attrition in their bases is only magnified in the political spectrum’s center.
Rather than seeking support, the implicit goal now appears to be to minimize losses. Rather than the candidate who gains more being the winner, 2016 looks to be a contest that will be decided by the candidate who loses less.
Instead of a majority president, we could see a plurality one. While that outcome is not uncommon — Bill Clinton did it twice — the pursuit of it is. Yet that is exactly how this race appears to be shaping up. Just how that will affect strategies and tactics remains to be seen, but it is hard to see how this is beneficial for campaigning — or governing later.
In Hobbes’ view, the human condition in the state of nature was nasty, brutish, and short. In the unnatural state of 2016’s campaign, it currently promises to be all of that… except short.
Walters Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons