It’s the paradox of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are virtually assured of facing off against each other in November, and yet both are widely unpopular.
Two thirds (65 percent) of voters have unfavorable opinions of the Republican billionaire, and only a quarter (24 percent) think positively of him, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey.
In Clinton’s case, 56 percent are down on her, while only 32 percent see her in a favorable light, the same poll found. A CNN poll this week put their unpopularity at 56 percent and 49 percent respectively.
“Historically, we haven’t seen this kind of thing before,” said Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College. “It would be one thing if you had one, but this is… the two frontrunners.”
Trump, 69, an unpredictable political outsider who has never held elected office, has antagonized substantial portions of the electorate with his insults against women, Mexicans and Muslims. The very experienced and circumspect Clinton, meanwhile, has struggled to win over many voters who have trouble relating to the 68-year-old White House aspirant.
How in the world did these two become their party’s presumptive nominees?
“It has to do with the way we select candidates,” said Columbia University professor Robert Shapiro. In 2012, only about 16 percent of Americans eligible to vote participated in party primaries. “Those who vote in primaries and caucuses are more often activists and extremists within the party. The average American barely votes,” Shapiro said.
With 17 candidates in the race for the Republican nomination, Trump only needed “a very small segment of the American electorate” to become his party’s standard bearer, he added.
Hillary Clinton profited from the fact that she had little competition, except from Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who continues to nip at her heels. “Other capable Democrat candidates decided not to run, because this is a bad year for Democrats to run for president,” said Shapiro, alluding to the difficulty of getting elected to succeed a two-term president from the same party.
Trump and Clinton also suffer from the fact that they are so well known, said Zaino. “These are two people who have been around a long time, so people have very strong opinions about them on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
Americans know all about them—their strengths, their weaknesses, the trajectory of their lives.
Clinton, who has long dreamt of being the first woman president of the United States, has been in the public eye for more than 20 years: she was first lady during Bill Clinton’s 1993-2001 presidency, senator from New York from 2001 to 2009, and secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
Trump has been a celebrity even longer, famed for his wealth, his skyscrapers, his two divorces and a hit reality TV show, The Apprentice, which he hosted for more than 10 years. “A lot of Democrats feel like the Democratic party has become the party of the Clintons and a lot of people are not happy with that,” said Sam Abrams, an expert at Sarah Lawrence College. “For many of my students, they have never known an era when a Clinton or a Bush was not president or dominating national politics,” he said.
Which explains the yearning for something else, particularly among young voters who prefer the 74-year-old Sanders to Clinton by a wide margin. And while three quarters of Americans say they are unhappy with their political leaders, the White House frontrunners have been battered by their rivals and the bitterness of the campaign itself.
Before calling it quits Tuesday evening, Republican candidate Ted Cruz went so far as to accuse Trump of being a “serial philanderer,” a “pathological liar,” and a “narcissist.” Sanders, meanwhile, continues to denounce Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees that she has received from big banks and corporations.
The battle between Clinton and Trump is certain to be at least as brutal. But on election day, all this will count for little.
That is because Americans will vote, first and foremost against the other side: 51 percent of Democrats who intend to vote for Clinton say they will do it to stop Trump, and only 48 percent to support her candidacy. And 57 percent of Republicans would vote for Trump to oppose Clinton, and only 43 percent because they want the billionaire to win, according to the CNN poll.