After months of enduring more candidates than could fit on a debate stage, the presidential race has boiled down to a transplanted New Yorker with an extensive resume and limited vision versus a native New Yorker with no resume and limited judgment. Then there’s that third New Yorker—the guy with the Brooklyn accent—who has tapped the imagination of those who want to address their grievances by changing the political system rather than by changing the political demography. Bernie won’t get to be on the fall ballot, but his effectiveness at channeling frustration into a coherent call to action speaks to the shortcomings of those who will.
In an anti-establishment year defined by anger on the right and left, you couldn’t invent a more ironic favorite than Hillary Clinton. Few people not related to George Bush are as associated with the political class than Hillary. She has been an establishment figure for decades; her election would return her to the White House. At a moment when people seek imagination she offers pragmatism. As inspirational as it would be to millions for a woman to be elected president, Hillary does not present herself as a visionary. She is an incrementalist who promises to nudge the political process as far as she believes she can in order to achieve some measure of progress. This is the essence of her response to Sanders’ call for political revolution: it’s not practical (as though revolutions ever are). Free college education? Not happening, but we can try to cut interest rates on student loans and reduce the need to borrow to attend public schools. A $15 minimum wage? Let’s try to get it to $12, then we can talk.
These are worthy goals. Hillary’s proposals will draw opposition on the right from those who worry about costs or believe government should not tinker with wages, but it’s hard for Democrats to argue with her objectives. This has permitted Hillary to obfuscate a key difference with Bernie and claim that she is as much a progressive as he because they share progressive goals, when what distinguishes them is how they would arrive at a more progressive future. Hillary is a transactional politician; she wants to get things done. Bernie is a transformational politician; he wants to reinvent how things get done. He contends that dramatic changes are needed to address the fundamental concerns of ordinary people, and the political process as presently constituted cannot deliver because it is run by and for a tiny elite unaffected by those concerns. So he is running to change the process. And he has struck a nerve.
Bernie Sanders resonates with the political moment in a way that Hillary Clinton cannot because she is a product of the system he wants to change. The intensity of his support, from his outsized crowds to his remarkable small-dollar fundraising, confirms his appeal. Hillary has more voters but by these measures Bernie has more passionate voters. Momentarily set aside practical questions of what he could accomplish in office. Set aside the fact that he was unable to build a coalition broad enough to win the Democratic nomination. Set aside doubts that America would elect a self-described Democratic socialist. Bernie is offering a vision that rises to the moment, and people are responding as intensely to him as they are elsewhere on the political spectrum to Donald Trump.
But Trump’s situation is the inverse of Hillary’s. Trump voters are passionate—as passionate as Sanders voters—but they are animated by an exclusionary message which has alienated enormous segments of the larger electorate he will need to win a general election. This saddles Trump with far more general election baggage than Clinton. In substance and style, Trump has turned off voters who reside on the other side of the real and imaginary walls he has built between people. For all the people he has brought into the political process, he has alienated far more who see him as a threat or adversary, or who are embarrassed by his antics, or feel he is unqualified for the office he seeks. He starts the general election campaign facing unprecedented electoral obstacles.
How bad is it? This bad:
- For all of Bernie’s appeal among younger voters, Millennials are ready to support Hillary by a 61-25 margin over The Donald according to a survey conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
- Seventy percent of women have a negative opinion of Trump according to Gallup tracking figures, a percentage that’s been growing steadily since Trump has been in the race.
- Among married women, one of the more reliable Republican constituencies, Clinton leads Trump 48-36 according to a survey conducted for Bloomberg Politics.
- Among Latino voters, Trump’s favorable rating is nine percent. Nine. According to a survey by Latino Decisions, Trump is poised to carry eleven percent of the Latino vote, and the reason why is his position on immigration. That’s less than half the support Mitt Romney received from Latino voters in 2012. And we know what happened to him.
The Trump campaign is not a viable entity if these figures or anything close to them persist into the summer and fall. We can apply the usual caveat that unexpected things can happen during a long—make that an excruciatingly long—campaign. That’s true up to a point. But thus far, there is no indication that the candidate recognizes that “the people” who voted for him in the primaries are not a representative subset of the voters he will need to win in November. Nor has he shown any indication he knows how to reach out to voters he may have offended should he decide this is necessary. He is an awful match to the general electorate.
Which brings us back to Hillary, who has not found a way to tap into the excitement of this antiestablishment moment but does not have to carry Trump’s baggage. Her challenge is to find a way to motivate voters who object to her status quo status and convince them to turn out for her. It is a hard sell, though not as onerous a task as asking constituencies you’ve repelled or angered to vote for you, which is the much larger hurdle facing Trump.
Both candidates will try to overcome the obstacles they face, though their efforts will be bounded by the limitations of who they are. No amount of marketing can turn Clinton into a credible agent of institutional change or Trump into a poster child for multicultural understanding. Hillary is not a natural fit to the political moment. Trump is not a natural fit to the 2016 electorate. But in the end, somebody has to win.