Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president. Hillary Clinton is about a month away from having the same designation on the Democratic side. Assuming they do secure the nominations, what kind of choice will they present to the voters in the fall?
Normally, that question would be relatively easy to answer. It would match a solid conservative who had served in the Senate or perhaps as a Governor against a progressive/liberal who had similar credentials. The choice, then, would be based primarily on substance, on which candidate presented the better/more popular policy positions/legislative proposals. More generally, the choice would test the ideological tenor of the electorate.
In 1964, for example, the country was anxious to move ahead with social and civil rights reforms. Thus, the candidate with a liberal agenda (Lyndon Johnson) was favored over a staunch conservative (Barry Goldwater). Sixteen years later, the country was dissatisfied with liberalism (Jimmy Carter) and receptive to the same conservative approach (Ronald Reagan) it had roundly rejected in ’64. The times change, and the voters reflect those changes in their preferences for the highest office in the land.
Winning candidates are sometimes personally popular (John F. Kennedy), but occasionally they are not (Richard M. Nixon). Sometimes they are perceived to have high moral character (Jimmy Carter in 1976), but just as frequently they are not (Bill Clinton twice). Sometimes they are thought to be very intelligent (Clinton), but then they might be succeeded by someone who isn’t thought to be so gifted (George W. Bush). And so it goes. One way to explain these variable factors would be to say that the American electorate is fickle, but a better explanation is that the voters elect the candidate with whose ideological identification and political agenda they most closely agree—at that point in time.
All of which is of no help when the pending Trump v. Clinton campaign is considered because when it comes to ideological identity and political agenda, Donald Trump is the equivalent of a blank slate. He is so unfathomable that many conservatives refuse to endorse him and so perplexing that many leaders of the party whose banner he will carry want nothing to do with him. He prevailed against the many other candidates for the nomination not because of what he stands for or for what he believes, but because he says what he thinks, doesn’t care about being politically correct, and is, simply stated, entertaining.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, fits the pattern of a traditional presidential candidate. She is ideologically identifiable (left of center, but not radically so), and she is otherwise well-credentialed for the position as a former U.S. Senator and secretary of State, not to mention her eight years as a very active and substantively involved first lady. What Hillary lacks, to use an overused word, is charisma. More generally stated, she just isn’t trusted, although why she isn’t may be a mix of her perceived political nature and the way she is portrayed by a virulent right-wing blogosphere that hates all things Clinton (whether of the Bill or Hillary variety).
Trump’s support comes primarily from less-educated white males, but it extends generally to working class Americans of either gender who are struggling to make ends meet. It also comes from those who are just fed up with the direction, as they perceive it, of the country. To win, he will have to broaden his appeal, but it would be a fool’s bet to think that he can’t, for if Trump has proved nothing else in getting as far as he has in the last ten months, he has certainly established that he can capitalize on his personal appeal (or, to use a less charitable term, on his shtick).
But it will be an uphill battle, for as difficult as it is for many Americans to get positively excited about Hillary, she is one tough campaigner, meaning, she will hit hard when she needs to and tower over Trump (pardon the pun) when the two engage in substantive debates. Of course, the same was assumed to be an advantage Al Gore had over George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign. Gore was the policy wonk; Bush was the “lesser son” who was just an “aw-shucks” kind of guy. And then Gore turned out to be an insufferable egghead who lost as many debate points on style as he had potentially gained on substance.
Based on her performances in the Bernie Sanders debates (and her prior campaigns), Hillary can be expected to fare considerably better when she faces off against Mr. Trump. He, on the other hand, probably won’t have the benefit of the stage appeal he had in the Republican debates. For one thing, he’ll be dealing with the formality of the process, wherein he’ll only be able to address the questioner, not Ms. Clinton, and will have questions posed that focus on policy and substance, not the size of his, um, hands.
And if this election is going to be decided on substantive expertise, it will be no contest, because other than Sarah Palin, Donald Trump is the closest thing to a completely ignorant candidate for national office the country has ever seen get as far as he has gotten. Trump is the equivalent of the uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who has an opinion on almost everything without having studied anything beyond the headlines in the tabloid newspaper he reads occasionally. In short, on matters of substance, he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Trump has been embarrassed by few interviewers so far, but that should change once the real campaign begins. He might survive the grilling he’ll get from the media, but it won’t be because he knows anything. Instead, he will continue to play the game he’s been playing all along, claiming to be the greatest at everything and berating Hillary as the worst at everything. It’s a simple strategy for a simple-minded candidate.
In the end, the election will be one of style against substance, with the least qualified presidential candidate ever running against one of the most qualified in recent history.