The Democratic primary will technically march on, but Hillary Clinton is almost certainly going to be her party’s nominee. Same with Donald Trump. And voters don’t appear thrilled at the prospect: Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles.
Normally, when we talk about candidate likability, we use favorability ratings, which combine “strongly favorable,” “somewhat favorable,” “somewhat unfavorable” and “strongly unfavorable.” But that didn’t work so well in the Republican primary, where Trump was able to win despite a relatively low net favorability rating because his “strongly favorable” rating with Republican primary voters was among the highest in the field. So let’s look at Trump and Clinton’s “strongly1 favorable” and “strongly unfavorable” ratings among general election voters.2
These are people who don’t just like or dislike the candidates, they really like or dislike them.
No past candidate comes close to Clinton, and especially Trump, in terms of engendering strong dislike a little more than six months before the election.
Clinton’s average “strongly unfavorable” rating in probability sample polls from late March to late April, 37 percent, is about 5 percentage points higher than the previous high between 19803 and 2012. Trump, though, is on another planet. Trump’s average “strongly unfavorable” rating, 53 percent, is 20 percentage points higher than every candidate’s rating besides Clinton’s. Trump is less disliked than David Duke was when Duke ran for the presidency in 1992, but Duke never came close to winning the nomination. In fact, I’ve seen never anything like Trump’s numbers heading into a general election for someone who is supposed to be competitive.4
Part of the negativity voters feel toward Clinton and Trump probably has something to do with growing political polarization in our country. But polarization doesn’t explain everything. If Trump and Clinton’s strongly unfavorable ratings were simply a byproduct of polarized politics, you’d expect them to have high “strongly favorable” ratings too. They don’t. You can see this in their net strong favorability ratings (the “strongly favorable” rating minus the “strongly unfavorable” rating):
No major party nominee before Clinton or Trump had a double-digit net negative “strong favorability” rating. Clinton’s would be the lowest ever, except for Trump.
In previous cycles, the nominees of each party almost always had a strongly favorable and unfavorable rating within 10 percentage points of each other. The only exception was Michael Dukakis in 1988; only 19 percent of Americans felt strongly about Dukakis, either favorably or unfavorably. Over 50 percent of Americans give Clinton and Trump either a “strongly favorable” or “strongly unfavorable” rating, and most of that feeling is negative.
The good news for both candidates is that we’re still six months from the election. Dukakis was clearly more strongly liked than George H.W. Bush in 1988 at this point in the campaign, and it was Bush who went on to win the election. George W. Bush, in 2000, was also more strongly liked than Al Gore at this point, and the 2000 election ended up being really close. That is, there is time for these impressions to change.
Of course, we’ve never had two nominees like this, about whom so many voters had already made up their minds — emphatically. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Voters see this campaign, for now, as truly a choice between the lesser of two evils.