Having internally conceded West Virginia to Bernie Sanders Tuesday, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign may have gotten an unexpected jolt from an exit poll result.
Forty-four percent of those voting for Sanders told the surveyists that they’d vote for Republican Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the fall.
So eye-opening was that statistic that at least two news organizations flashed it to the world as breaking news. It appears to confirm the worst fears of Democrats who support Clinton — that she is far too beatable in the fall — and, of course, reifies the standard rationale for Sanders’ continued presence in the race.
Fortunately, Team Clinton can take comfort: This particular exhibit of agita in the electorate is not something that will doom her in the fall. Then, after taking comfort, they can start to focus on stuff that really ought to sober them up.
Here’s what Clinton ought to be afraid of — and what she can safely ignore.
First, that stat. Don’t sweat it.
The Democratic electorate in West Virginia is quite conservative. It was quite offended by Clinton’s correct, if impertinently expressed jibes at the demise of coal country. (“We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”) As ABC News summarized the primary electorate: “The highest level of economic concern in any Democratic primary this year and greater-than-usual turnout among men, whites, political independents, and critics of President Obama characterized Hillary Clinton’s challenges in the West Virginia primary.” A majority of voters had a negative view of trade; a third of all voters are directly tied to the coal industry and they overwhelmingly voted for Sanders, who is a free trade skeptic. If there was a state Clinton deserved to lose, it was West Virginia.
Simply put, that state will continue to undergo wrenching change — most of it unrelated to trade, some of it related to the Democratic emphasis on renewable energy sources — regardless of who becomes president.
But Clinton should worry about the economically aggrieved within her own party — in many other states, close to half of Democratic primary voters felt that the Obama economy had left them behind. They might not identify it as such, but it’s a particular challenge for Clinton: She must embrace Obama and his policies without seeming tone deaf to the much larger structural challenges that have set back American workers and continue to drag down their perceptions about their economic futures.
She shouldn’t worry about Obama himself, though. And she shouldn’t truly worry that Bernie Sanders’ supporters in other states will vote for Donald Trump en masse. Nothing would be more — let me put it simply — contrary to their self-interest, and they know it.
In this age of meta-media, we might be inclined to tell exit pollsters what we think the opposing candidate might need to hear. Nothing registers a protest as loudly as a Sanders liberal promising to vote for Donald Trump.
But Trump, even with his recent bleats about raising taxes on the rich, will not win by courting liberals, or by adopting their policies. As the Republican Party coalesces around him, he is much more likely to fall back onto orthodox Republican economic policies, while Clinton has already been pulled to the left by Sanders and is promising some hefty new purchases for disaffected voters.
Clinton should not worry, generically, about Donald Trump’s appeal to women. She should worry very specifically about a charge he will make: Trump said this weekend, and has said repeatedly, that Bill Clinton “is fair game.” That means his personal peccadillos are “fair game.” That means, specifically for Hillary Clinton, that the women who accused Clinton of sexual misconduct will find their charges given a second airing by Trump. Trump will accuse Hillary Clinton of using her power and stature to bury these women — to prevent them from getting a fair shot at justice. He will do this repeatedly; he will do this loudly. Clinton must have an efficient and effective response for this charge.
Clinton should not worry about pundits who like to say that this election will feature the two most unpopular nominees in the history of polling. A good president need not be popular, and Trump has no solid plan to emerge from his abyss of negative attributes. Clinton is polling at her lowest, thanks to a bruising primary. She will become less disliked as these numbers stabilize.
But she should worry if she lets these concerns get in the way of her making the race a big one. By that I mean: Every tactic, proposal, policy maneuver, vector, change — all should be on the table. She must treat Donald Trump as if he were an imminent threat to the country. She cannot run the race as a frontrunner. She cannot rest on mathematics of the electoral map, which are broadly in her favor, but which could flip on a dime. She cannot be cautious about losing what she’s built already. Trump has nowhere to go but up; his ability to master the media frustrates her campaign, but instead of complaining about it, they must figure out how to beat it back.