Trump Tests Limits of Negativity

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop at the First Niagara Center, Monday, April 18, 2016, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

By Mark Silva

The @realDonaldTrump is on the road again.

As Democrats rallied around Hillary Clinton at their convention this week, Trump stormed his way through battleground states with a renewed and familiar ferocity.

At a town hall in Virginia, the Republican presidential nominee asked why his rival has dropped her middle name — “Hillary Rotten Clinton” — and called her instincts “defective.” In the home state of Clinton running mate Tim Kaine, Trump called the senator and former governor “a political hack — people don’t even like the guy.”

In North Carolina, where one rally opened with chants of “Lock her up,’’ Trump said of “Crooked Hillary Clinton… Believe me, people, she is crooked.”

At a South Florida news conference, where Trump wished Russia happy hunting in any hacking of Clinton’s email, he called the former secretary of state “a mess” and added: “Hillary Clinton is a disaster.” And in Pennsylvania, his “Crooked Hillary Clinton” line prompted another “Lock her up” chant. “You know what we’re gonna do even better?” he told the crowd in Scranton. “We’re gonna beat her on Nov. 8.”

With a defiance that served him well through his party’s primaries, Trump has headed into the general election with what one writer calls not so much a pivot as “a pirouette,” doubling down on painting a portrait of his opponent as wrong, weak and even corrupt as he campaigns across the hardest fought states.

“He is not pivoting, and I don’t think he ever will pivot in the general election,’’ says David Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University. “He is who he is, and this is deeply embedded in his personality.’’

Despite Michelle Obama’s convention vow this week that “when they go low, we go high,” it’s likely that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns will ensure the low road remains crowded. Yet Trump, personally charting the course, appears intent on testing how far the politics of character assassination will carry anyone.

The limits hinge on a difference between political attacks relevant to anyone’s claim to the presidency and purely personal invective, says Redlawsk, co-author of a book, The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning.

“Negativity absolutely plays an important role. The idea here is that the attacks need to be relevant to the office,” he says. “Attacking things like a candidate’s family or a candidate’s religion often rebounds against the attacker. But when the attack becomes relevant, voters do listen.”

Yet Trump’s rhetoric “is overly personal — more so than any presidential campaign in memory,” says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and author of the book, In Defense of Negativity.

“So far, it has not been self-destructive for Trump,” Geer says. “As we enter the fall campaign, Trump will likely have to become more substantive and less personal, if he wants to win. He needs to show those with doubts about him that he has the gravitas to be president.”

Both Trump and Clinton are questioning each other’s core qualification for the presidency — she deeming him “temperamentally unfit” for the office, he accusing her of “bad judgment.” Yet Trump’s drumbeat of “Crooked Hillary” digs deeper. And experts say that, while it rallies his base of supporters, it’s also likely to offend swing voters, independents and Democrats still assessing the two.

And Trump doesn’t stop at Clinton. Wednesday in Miami, he called President Barack Obama “the most ignorant president in our history.” And the senator from Massachusetts who spoke for Clinton at her convention? “She’s got a big mouth,” Trump said of Elizabeth Warren earlier this week. “They said, ‘We’d like you to apologize.’ I said, ‘For what?’ ‘For Pocahontas.’ I said, ‘All right, Pocahontas, I’d like to apologize to you, Pocahontas…’ Her life’s a fraud.”

“Donald Trump in this way — like everything else about him — is at least attempting to rewrite the book,” Redlawsk says. “The kinds of attacks he’s using, which verge into that personal area, play well to his base… The problem is, they do nothing to expand the base.’’

“Using Pocahontas on Elizabeth Warren is not something any campaign strategist would suggest as a good strategy. It goes way too personal,” he says. “On the other hand, attacking Hillary the way he does on emails — presidential judgment is a core issue. But it’s undermined by the fact that he just can’t seem to control himself.”

Trump has reveled this week in the Democratic National Committee’s ouster of chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz — “I always knew she was highly overrated,” he said in Roanoke, Virginia, on Monday.

“Hillary Clinton, and I’ve been saying this for a long time — I got it from Bernie Sanders — she has bad judgment,” Trump said. “Her instincts are defective.”

Clinton takes afternoon naps, the Republican said — “No naps for Trump.”

“Why did Hillary get rid of her middle name?” he asked. “Hillary Rotten Clinton. Maybe that’s why — it’s too close.”

At a Trump rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., that night, warm-up speakers rallied the crowd with lines such as: “She’s a crook, and we’re not letting a crook off the hook.” Pastor Mark Burns, an African-American in a potential swing state where minorities account for 30 percent of the vote, said: “She belongs in jail.”

This was the venue where the Charlotte Observer’s Mark Washburn wrote: “It was time for a pivot, as they say in politics. Donald Trump preferred a pirouette.”

Clinton has complained that “‘I don’t like Donald Trump’s tone,’” Trump said. “Jeb Bush used to say that, too. Jeb said it, and Hillary said it. Where’s Jeb now?”

It’s a tone echoed almost hourly on Twitter, @realDonaldTrump, with his 10 million followers: “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”

“Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said at a news conference Wednesday at his Trump National Doral Miami golf club, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you might be rewarded mightily by our press.”

“We have an election coming up with a very dishonest person,’’ Trump said in Winston-Salem on Monday. “Our country can’t take it.”

At a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Charlotte on Tuesday, Trump said: “The other candidate in this race, you know her name, Crooked Hillary Clinton — and believe me, people, she is crooked.”

At the VFW the day before, Clinton told the crowd she isn’t interested in being provocative or insulting. “I have optimism,” she said. “I don’t understand people who trash talk about America — who talk about us being in decline and who act as though we are not the greatest country that has been on the face of the Earth.”

“Bottom line: Trump needs to show America that he is ready to sit behind that big desk on Pennsylvania Avenue,” Geer suggests. “He has yet to do that in a convincing fashion. The country wants change. He could be the vehicle for change. But it has to be the right kind of change.”

Hillary Clinton’s own attempts to portray Trump as unfit are “fair game” so long as it remains relevant to the demands of the office, Rutgers’ Redlawsk says.

“The difference is, the way the Clinton campaign approaches this is that there does appear to be some strategic element, and it’s tempered,” he says. “Whereas Trump is spending virtually all of his time with these negative attacks, Clinton is doing what a consultant would say, mixing up the aspirational — ‘the world will be better’ — with the attacks on Trump’s fitness for the presidency.”

The Republican, he says, clearly is running free of any conventional boundaries: “Donald Trump will always be Donald Trump.”

Mark Silva, who covered George W. Bush’s White House for the Chicago Tribune, managed the U.S. government team for Bloomberg News in Washington covering the White House, Congress, federal agencies, courts and political campaigns. He has covered presidential election campaigns since 1992.

Originally published at on July 27, 2016.

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