[A repost of my piece on The Conversation last week]
If Trump was not her opponent, Clinton’s high negative ratings might be a fatal liability. But Trump has taken unpopularity and political vulnerability to strange new frontiers – and there are so many angles from which she might attack him that the real challenge will be to prioritise only one.
Over the course of his primary campaign (not to mention his life), Trump has said so many crass and offensive things about women, racial minorities, immigrants, and Muslims that it is possible to compose brutal attack ads consisting of nothing but his own words. He has almost no chance of winning among those groups, meaning he must run up a huge victory among white male voters to stand a chance. This in turn leaves a tiny margin for error, and a non-trivial chance that his campaign could end in electoral disaster.
Another option is to undermine Trump’s claims to wealth and business success. Much of his appeal depends on his image as a self-made, deal-making billionaire, but that image is now fraying badly thanks to stories of Trump’s poor investments, bankruptcies and ethically dubious ventures (exhibit A: Trump University, now the subject of legal action).
His refusal to release his tax returns has led many informed commentators to speculate that Trump’s wealth may be far less than he has claimed, something that could drastically erode his appeal even to his fans.
No doubt these attacks will feature as the campaign proceeds – but in recent days, Clinton seems to have settled on a core strategy.
In a widely lauded foreign policy speech in San Diego, she derided Trump as “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility”. His ideas, she said, “aren’t just different – they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas – just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies”. And then the biggest punch: “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes.”
There’s plenty of ammunition here. Deeply ignorant about foreign policy and apparently disinclined to study further, Trump has made wild, inarticulate statements on a number of issues, including how he would handle crucial security challenges in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
And while it may amuse some voters to see Trump trampling the norms of “political correctness” at home, even they might pause for thought before giving someone so volatile the power to put their families’ lives at risk. This is the most powerful argument against him; expect to hear it a lot.