Clinton Must Motivate, Trump Needs to Persuade

The Democrats will get over their Sanders mania, but hating Clinton is not a winning strategy.

Hillary Clinton speaks in Louisville on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
May 12, 2016, 8 p.m.

It’s a little ironic that the presumptive nominee in one party put all his rivals on the sidelines after winning just 40.64 percent of the vote in the primaries and caucuses, while a candidate for the other party’s nomination has won 55.97 percent of the vote but is still being stiffly challenged and lost this month’s primaries in Indiana and West Virginia.  

These percentages, compiled by the numbers-crunchers at, are just another manifestation of the strange year it’s been. There was no path left for Ted Cruz or John Kasich, so they’ve dropped out of contention for the Republican nomination while Bernie Sanders is still plugging away and winning contests despite the fact that he has no viable path to the Democratic nomination. The NBC News political unit calculates that Sanders would have to win 86 percent of the remaining delegates overtake Hillary Clinton. That’s a virtually impossible task in a system of proportional allocation of delegates. When Sanders won West Virginia this week, he got just 16 delegates to Clinton’s 11.

Fortunately for Clinton, she isn’t having to shell out huge amounts of money to clinch the nomination, nor does she have to tack any further to the left to blunt Sanders’s challenge. Thus she is gradually making the turn to the general-election campaign, mindful that she will need Sanders’s supporters in November.  

Given that among Democratic voters, 63 percent indicated to NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollsters Bill McInturff and Fred Yang that they had a positive view of Clinton and 20 percent had a negative view, her challenge is more to motivate than rather than to persuade, at least among the party faithful. With just 8 percent of voters who consider themselves Democrats having a positive view of Donald Trump and 87 percent holding a negative view, presumably many Sanders supporters would be mainly motivated to vote against Trump rather than for Clinton, but a vote is a vote. In 2012, exit polls showed President Obama winning 92 percent of the vote among self-identified Democrats.

For Trump, things aren’t that simple. The NBC/WSJ poll shows 42 percent of Republicans have a positive view of Trump and the same share has a negative view. Trump must convince a significant number of party members who clearly do not like him to vote for him anyway. Given the antipathy among Republicans towards Clinton, it is not unreasonable to imagine Trump transforming his 42 percent positive rating to a GOP vote approaching Mitt Romney’s 93 percent. Still, it will be a pretty heavy lift and, it should be remembered, even the support of 93 percent of self-identified Republicans left Romney 4 points shy of beating President Obama.

Since Trump has been so consistently underestimated in the primaries this year, GOP optimists wonder why a similar dynamic shouldn’t take hold in the general election. It’s a legitimate question but tends to ignore the fact that Trump will be playing on an entirely different playing field. Yes, the real-estate magnate skillfully identified and exploited a reservoir of alienation and anger in the Republican Party, but the dissatisfaction among independents and Democrats will not be widely dispersed as it was in the Republican primaries. Trump was able to capture just over 50 percent of the GOP delegates with 40.64 percent of the vote because the other 59.36 percent of Republicans could not settle on another candidate from a field of 16. In the end, his principal rival, Cruz, proved to be even more unacceptable than Trump.

At least at this point, the general election appears to be somewhat paradoxical. Clinton has a high floor and a low ceiling. Her negatives are simply too high for her to win by a big margin over Trump, but at the same time the probability of her winning is higher than one might think for a race that is likely to stay 40-something to 40-something, with spreads of perhaps 4 to 7 points most of the way.  

For Republican leaders, this is likely to be a miserable six months. Every week or even every few days, there will be a new reason to smack the palms of their hands on their foreheads. On Wednesday it was Trump saying that he saw no reason to release his income-tax returns, becoming the first major-party nominee in four decades to decline to do so. Just a few days earlier, his folks were having to walk back his suggestion that the United States should try to negotiate the national debt down. This might work in real estate, but it’s unimaginable to see Uncle Sam haggling with Treasury bondholders as if they were in a Turkish bazaar.

With Donald Trump, there will always be “something.” Republicans are praying that he stumbles across a special something that captures the imagination of American voters.

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