Politics & Policy

Democrats See Danger in Trump’s Developing Anti-Clinton Strategy

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Listen for a few minutes to Republicans in the “Never Trump” camp, and you’d think the outcome of November 8’s election a foregone conclusion. Donald Trump’s unfavorables are so high, they argue, his bridges to minority voters so thoroughly burnt, that Hillary Clinton will inevitably trounce him in a landslide akin to Lyndon Johnson’s historic victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964.

But talk to Democratic strategists and you’ll hear a different story. Despite Clinton’s persistent lead in the polls, many of them are far from sanguine about her prospects against the presumptive Republican nominee. They view Trump’s ability to harness the anger of America’s dispossessed white working class as a powerful threat in several Midwestern swing states, especially now that he’s openly courting Bernie Sanders supporters and aping the Vermont senator’s rhetoric on trade. They worry the New York real-estate mogul’s brash, bullying campaign style could throw the easily flustered Clinton off balance, upending her campaign at a crucial moment. And they fear that a relentlessly negative campaign would turn women voters away from politics altogether, depriving Clinton of the votes she’ll need to overcome Trump’s likely advantage with white men.

“Ted Cruz and almost any other Republican would’ve been much easier, because they’re conventional politicians,” says Mary Anne Marsh, a veteran Democratic strategist from Boston. “Donald Trump was always going to be the hardest candidate, because he is so unconventional. . . . I think this has the potential to be as close as the 2000 election.”

Trump’s sudden ascendancy to his presumptive throne on Tuesday appeared to catch him off guard — his speech at Trump Tower was relatively subdued, and he spent more time touting past poll numbers than launching broadsides against his general-election opponent. Still, there were signs of a nascent anti-Clinton strategy. “She doesn’t understand trade, her husband signed, perhaps in the history of the world, the worst trade deal, in NAFTA,” he said, before laying into Clinton over her professed plan to put Appalachian coal miners “out of business.”

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Trump’s appeal to the protectionist instincts of white, blue-collar workers has most Democratic strategists convinced he’ll run to the left of Clinton on the issues of trade and economic globalization. Those are issues Sanders continues to exploit successfully in his own run against Clinton — particularly in the Rust Belt, where some Democrats worry the senator’s supporters in the union rank-and-file could defect to Trump come November.

“This attack on the elites, this populism is a right-left phenomenon,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a New York–based Democratic strategist and a veteran of past Clinton campaigns. “Bernie Sanders used it. Donald Trump is going to use it. And Hillary Clinton will be portrayed as an elitist who doesn’t understand the economic dilemma that people who work for a living are having.” He thinks Clinton will struggle on the issue not just in Ohio and Indiana, but also in Pennsylvania – and even deep-blue New Jersey. “States that were not in play [in past elections], with large numbers of white men, are going to be significant,” he says.

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Sheinkopf isn’t the only Democratic strategist anxious over the Rust Belt. “When you look at states like that — New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio — where Democrats, in double-digit percentages, went and changed their registration to vote in the Republican primary, that takes a lot of effort,” says Marsh. “You have to be highly motivated to do that. And the majority were middle-aged white men, blue-collar workers, rank-and-file union members.”

Others are more optimistic. Doug Thornell, a D.C.-based Democratic strategist, argues that Trump’s shady business history and a tax plan that favors the wealthy will negate any progress he could make with Midwestern workers on trade. But even Thornell, who is relatively bullish on Clinton’s chances, says Trump’s unpredictable policy shifts could complicate attempts to pin him down on those issues. “There’s a chameleon-like aspect to Trump,” he says. “He’s going to do everything he can to try to make people forget what he said during the primary.”

#share#Beyond NAFTA and the Rust Belt lies a deeper fear for Democrats — Trump’s browbeating personal style and his prowess in political theater. “He is the master of soundbites,” Donna Brazile, vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and former campaign manager for Al Gore, writes in an e-mail. She believes Clinton needs to avoid engaging Trump on the insults and reckless accusations that helped sink each of his Republican opponents. And she worries he’ll float conspiracy theories — similar to the one he pushed about President Obama’s birth certificate — to throw her off balance. “Watch out Team Clinton, [Trump] says so much nonsense,” she says.

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Bob Shrum, John Kerry’s former campaign manager, thinks Trump has only around a 10 percent chance of besting Clinton in November. But, he cautions, there’s one massive wild card — the first presidential debate. “These are going to be globally watched events, they’re going to have the biggest audience since the moon landing,” Shrum says. “And she’s got to prepare for wild Donald, mild Donald, and somewhere-in-between Donald.”

Trump’s proclivity for intensely personal attacks may not only shake Clinton out of her tightly scripted message — Democrats worry it could also turn off her core constituency. “Historically, the more negative the campaign, the more women just throw up their hands and go, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible,’ or ‘Oh my God, I can’t take this,’” says Marsh. “I think the bet [the Trump campaign] is making is, more than trying to win over women, he’s trying to discourage them from even voting. And he’ll do that by waging a negative campaign.”

#related#None of this is to say that “Never Trump” Republicans — along with many very confident Democrats — won’t be proven correct about Trump’s general-election viability. He remains toxic with Latinos, deeply disliked by most African Americans, and widely mistrusted by women of all stripes. Many conservative Republicans loathe the man, and so far the GOP’s leadership seems hesitant to lift even a finger on his behalf.

But Democratic strategists are still wary of Trump’s inherent unpredictability, and of the effect his unorthodox positions on trade and globalization could have on voters in key swing states. And they have a message for any fellow Democrat expecting a quick and easy campaign against a fatally flawed Republican front-runner.

“No Democrat can take this race lightly,” says Marsh. “If that’s the attitude you have, you can say hello to President Trump.”

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