In this election Hillary Clinton is the default presidential candidate, the person who will continue the policies of the current administration, by her own account. Given the high level of distrust, and low level of esteem in which she is held by a majority of the American people, Republicans simply had to nominate a not-Hillary, and would have likely cruised to victory in the presidential election. Almost any of the potential candidates could have filled this role, except for Donald Trump. He has managed to move the election dangerously close to being about not-Trump. The result is a clash between two negatives: not-Hillary vs. not-Trump, with the winner being the one who ultimately is perceived as less loathsome. Thus the campaign won’t come down to who would make the best president, but rather who would be worse, with people voting against a candidate rather than for one.
This foreshadows a nasty campaign and a relatively low voter turnout as people become turned off by the whole process. Hillary has to run on the notion that things aren’t so bad, and for that matter that she’s not so bad, which is a tough sell. But fate has rewarded her with an even more problematic candidate in Donald Trump. Although he actually has the upper hand on conditions, i.e. things aren’t so good, in the mind of the public, his problem is not his policies, such as they are, but his personality. If he continues to respond rashly to every perceived slight, if he continues to display a lack of self-control and elevates trivia to an unwarranted significance he will certainly lose. For he will have converted the election from being about Hillary to being about himself. Trump would probably have a better chance if he kept his mouth shut between now and November, because the only way he can win is by keeping the election about Hillary.
Despite the negative impressions they have generated, it is Trump’s outbursts that have attracted a significant segment of the population, which indicates just how alienated they are. They don’t care about propriety and temperament. They want someone who is so much of an outsider that he will upend the whole system. This makes him immune from almost any exposure of past allegedly dubious business practices. They are against the existing order and the way things are going for them personally, and Trump offers at least the possibility of change. But that base is not enough to win an election. That will hinge of people who are undecided as to who is worse.
Hillary, on the other hand, has to run against her own party if she wants to win, given how far left it has lurched. Her own primaries accentuate her weakness, being so objectionable that just about the worst candidate who could have opposed her came close to winning the nomination. She will win her party’s base, which may vote without enthusiasm, but that is not enough to win the election. She also has to convince and then add enough voters who think her opponent is even worse.
There is something wrong with an electoral system that winds up giving people a choice between the lesser of two evils. There are the Libertarian and Green party alternatives, and the former could get enough votes to affect the outcome, but the winner will still be either Clinton or Trump. We must ponder how it is that a country so fortunate, rich, and still full of promise could wind up with such a dismal choice. The saving grace is that the institutional structure is still strong enough to prevent anyone from mucking things up too seriously, given federalism and the separation of powers embedded in the constitution. The Framers understood the fragility of human nature, and designed a system that could withstand incompetence, stupidity, and egomania. Nevertheless even they might be surprised at the dismal choice we face more than two centuries later.