Trump vs. Clinton, Beyond the Cage Match

May 12, 2016

This presidential campaign is good at producing attention-grabbing train wrecks. Last week Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump as “a loose cannon.” In turn, Mr. Trump called Mrs. Clinton “the total enabler” of her husband’s affairs, and then he suggested that America repudiate some of its national debt.

This kind of back-and-forth in the 25 weeks left before Election Day may draw attention. But what will largely decide the contest—what will sway voters in the end—is the candidates’ success in emphasizing their principal selling points and undermining each other’s.

Mrs. Clinton argues that experience and temperament make her more qualified. Mr. Trump only claims that he will bring about necessary change. Polling shows both narratives have traction.

In the April NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 53% of voters rated Mrs. Clinton good or very good on “being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency”; 26% graded her poor or very poor. By comparison, only 21% rated Mr. Trump good or very good, and 61% poor or very poor. When pollsters asked if Mrs. Clinton had the “right temperament” for the job, 41% rated her positively. Only 12% said that of Mr. Trump.

Team Clinton will attempt to depict Mr. Trump as ignorant and unbalanced. Mrs. Clinton pounced this week when John Dickerson asked her on “Face the Nation” about the “loose cannon” remark. She attacked Mr. Trump for saying Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons, for declaring NATO obsolete, and for arguing the U.S. should target the families of terrorists, “which would be a war crime.”

For good measure, she rapped him for his comments on abortion: “When he says women should be punished for having abortions, what does that mean?” She suggested his comments on the debt demonstrate that “he just doesn’t understand that running our government is not the same as making real estate deals.” One difficulty of this approach is that it further paints Mrs. Clinton as status quo, a third term for President Obama.

Mr. Trump’s appeal comes from a powerful desire for change. In the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 24% of voters thought America was “generally headed in the right direction,” and 70% felt “that things are off on the wrong track.” These numbers are historically high and have been getting worse. Desire for change like this has led to defeat in six of the seven modern elections when a party was striving for a third White House term.

But the real-estate mogul has yet to convince enough people he is the man to set America back on track. When pollsters asked if Mr. Trump would bring “real change to the direction of the country,” 37% of voters responded positively, and 43% negatively. Mrs. Clinton’s numbers on the same question were 22% positive and 49% negative.

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