Much of the analysis on the expected match-up between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has focused on Trump’s high negatives with women and Hispanics or the Democrats’ seemingly huge advantage — a “Blue Wall” of 18 states, totaling 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win — that have gone Democratic in the last six presidential elections.
This line of thinking could generate a dangerous over-confidence that Clinton will win the presidency. Too many still underestimate Trump’s potential to push past supposed “ceilings” in opinion polls and to draw support from unlikely groups, such as evangelicals.
Demographics and regional electoral factors do matter in the general election. But deep and emotional judgments about candidates ultimately drive Americans’ choice of a president. The most salient variables are voter perceptions of three characteristics: a candidate’s personal political strength, voters’ trust in the depth and sincerity of the candidate’s convictions and, most importantly, whether the voters think that the candidate “cares” about people like them.
We are reminded daily of Trump’s record-setting negatives. He is seen by many, including Republicans, as risky, nasty and ego-driven. And yet he scores highly enough on these key factors — strength, conviction, and concern — that Democrats can’t afford to be even a little bit complacent.
Trump’s core supporters have reason to feel he has real political strength. After all, they have just seen him defy — and defeat — the most powerful leaders of his own adopted party. Trump backers also sense that he believes deeply in his core policy stances — especially on immigration, trade, and robust military power. He has convinced these core supporters that he cares about the economic and cultural anxieties felt by millions of people. He’s angry about it. So are they. If Trump can build out from these perceptions of strength, conviction, and concern he could begin to gain traction well beyond his core base.
The experience of recent presidential elections suggests that convincing swing voters that you possess these qualities can make all the difference in voters’ final choices of a president.
Consider these examples. In 1988, Governor Michael Dukakis was made to appear weak because he seemed not to respond strongly enough to attacks on his record and even on his patriotism. In 2004, too many Americans doubted war hero John Kerry’s convictions when he mishandled the swift-boaters.
Republican candidates have also stumbled. In 2008, John McCain’s response during the escalating economic meltdown seemed out of touch with people’s deep concerns. Voters further began to doubt the sincerity of his convictions when he picked Sarah Palin. In 2012, Mitt Romney called the depth of his own convictions into doubt by distancing himself from national health coverage modeled on his own Massachusetts health care plan — once his proudest achievement. Worse still, the leaked comments of Romney describing 47 percent of fellow Americans as “takers” of government aid made him seem uncaring about the needs of others — including, by the way, millions of Republican Social Security recipients. Fatal.
Hillary Clinton and her experienced team are certainly aware of the decisive trinity of strength, conviction, and caring. To win, she will have to constantly reinforce her own claim to having these qualities — while raising real doubts among independents and swing voters about whether Trump shares them.
This means keeping a laser-like focus on projecting her own strength, her strongly-held beliefs and her gut-level identification with the concerns of average Americans. These values already pervade her campaign — from policy to language to scheduling, to surrogates and to the people she surrounds herself with.
Her campaign can point to a lifetime of commitment to core values such as access to great education, health care, economic opportunity, and upward mobility. That’s a sharp contrast to Trump’s self-serving and ethically questionable business record that can expose his disregard for actual working Americans.
The Clinton campaign has plenty of material to work — much of it from Trump’s own mouth and behavior. Trump’s bully-boy “strength” is belied by his thin-skinned, almost infantile response to criticism — especially from women. Conviction? Check his 180-degree swing on such fundamental issues as a woman’s right to choose or a single-payer health system. Caring? Look to the long trail of ordinary people he has conned, and short-changed.
Clinton’s campaign recognizes that ultimate victory will largely depend on voters’ judgment about candidates’ personal strength, conviction, and care for people like them.
This values battle is one that Clinton will welcome, wage ferociously — and likely win.John Sasso was John Kerry’s general election manager at the Democratic National Committee in 2004 and manager of Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign in 1988.