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The Battle of the Negatives Is About to Begin

A Commentary By Fran Coombs

Barring an act of God, both major political parties now have their presidential nominees, and the mud’s about to fly.

Hillary Clinton’s loss in yesterday’s Indiana primary is merely an annoying speed bump on her way to being the Democratic nominee. Donald Trump’s win in the Hoosiers’ GOP primary clears his way to the nomination.

For now at least, the candidates are on a fairly level playing field. Rasmussen Reports surveying finds Trump with the slightest of leads among likely voters, although well within the margin of error. A new NBC News|SurveyMonkey poll echoes those findings showing Clinton with just a six-point advantage. But that survey tracks all Americans and not just likely voters, so it leans Democrat because Republicans are more likely to vote.

Clinton has the early edge because nationally there are more Democrats than Republicans. She also benefits from having a lot more friends in the media. It’s to Trump’s advantage, though, that Clinton still has that pesky Bernie Sanders to contend with, while he can focus on the general election and her.   

Both candidates have high negatives to contend with and lots of voters to win over. Voters doubt Clinton’s honesty, and even Sanders has questioned whether she is truly qualified for the White House. Younger voters are especially skeptical.

But only 46% of Republicans – and 27% of all voters – think Trump is qualified to be president. Not to mention the fact that Trump is, well, Trump which means he’s liable to say anything at anytime, and most agree that successful politicians need a lot more discipline. So a lot of Republicans in general are worried about what Trump will say next.

No wonder then that for now at least one-in-four voters opt out of the race if it’s Clinton vs. Trump, with 16% who intend to vote for some other candidate and six percent (6%) who are just going to stay home.

In early March, 49% said they will definitely vote against Trump if he is the Republican nominee, while 42% said the same about Clinton if she’s the standard-bearer for the Democrats. Few think, however, that any third-party candidate will be successful.

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So far Trump has sailed through statements that would have killed most previous candidates. In fact, there’s a sense that his supporters like the unscripted nature of his campaign. Imagine the surprise of both the media and his GOP opponents when polling found a generally positive response to his call for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States until the federal government improves its ability to screen out potential terrorists.

Clinton, like her husband, also has a history of sidestepping events and actions that would have ended the careers of other politicians. Most voters continue to believe, for example, that Clinton broke the law by sending and receiving classified information through a private e-mail server while secretary of State, but just 25% think she is likely to be indicted for it.

While there are clear policy differences between Clinton and Trump and even between Trump and recent GOP presidential candidates, campaign advertising and media coverage in the days ahead are more likely to emphasize the candidates’ negatives. Not that voters will be surprised: 75% believe that when it comes to covering presidential candidates, the media is more interested in creating controversies about them than it is in reporting where they stand on the issues.

Fifty-six percent (56%) of Americans say they are less likely to vote for a candidate who produces a negative campaign ad, but campaigns aren’t convinced. Still, $70 million in negative advertising hasn’t stopped Trump.

While there’s been some initial verbal sparring between the two, Trump not surprisingly has been the first to up the ante, first with an Instagram posting of Clinton barking like a dog intercut with footage of a laughing Vladimir Putin. More recently, he’s taken to calling his likely opponent Crooked Hillary, the latest in a series of nicknames that have spelled trouble for his GOP foes.

While Clinton has publicly countered with the message that “love trumps hate,” you can be sure that her smear agents Sidney Blumenthal and David Brock have been working hard behind the scenes to craft a vicious anti-Trump narrative. In the days ahead, the New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, are sure to feature “exposes” on every aspect of Trump’s business and personal life, including his behavior as a child.

Clinton is pitching herself as a better Obama, advancing the current president’s big government agenda even further than he wanted to go. Sanders is pushing her hard, too, to move left in a number of areas. Clinton’s also counting on mobilizing the Democratic base of minorities, women and younger voters with the battle-tested strategy of painting the Republican candidate as extreme, calling Trump anti-woman and, of course, a bigot for his proposed Muslim ban and his hard stance on illegal immigration.

Trump’s strategy recalls the mantra which propelled Clinton’s husband into the White House in 1992 - “It’s the economy, stupid.” He’s been critical of the recent economic - and national security - policies of both Democrats and Republicans and is promising to bring a businessman’s competence to the presidency. With this message, he hopes to reach economically stressed blue collar voters, so-called Reagan Democrats, and bring them into the GOP fold again.

Clinton has already shown that she’s prepared to cry “sexism” anytime she’s criticized, but Trump also has shown that he isn’t worried about the long-standing caution that male politicians have to handle female rivals with kid gloves. He also isn't hesitant to play the victim himself when attacked despite the hard hits he hands out.  In short, it looks like we’re in for a long and nasty campaign.

So let the mudbath begin.

Fran Coombs is the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by Fran Coombs .

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author at  fran.coombs@rasmussenreports.com.

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