The Unsettled Presidential Election

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have their respective party presidential nominations sewn up, but their general election campaigns face a lot of uncertainty and unfamiliar political terrain.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have their respective party presidential nominations sewn up, but their general election campaigns face a lot of uncertainty and unfamiliar political terrain.

By default or delegate count, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations appear set. However, the campaigns and party unification processes are anything but settled.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump faces high-profile defections from prominent Republican leaders and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton keeps losing primary elections to Bernie Sanders.

Trump meets this week with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has withheld his support from Trump. For Trump’s part, he claims he is ushering in a new-look Republican Party that may make party unity efforts a nice, but not necessary sidelight. That new look also may not include conservatives who say they won’t vote for Trump or Clinton.

Clinton has turned her political guns on a general election showdown with Trump, despite a still vigorous challenge by Sanders. However, just when it appeared Clinton would trounce Trump in a landslide, a poll by highly regarded Quinnipiac shows Clinton is in a dead heat or losing to Trump in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Sanders’ double-digit win in West Virginia this week added further doubt to whether Clinton can attract votes from disaffected white voters and political independents.

Trump and Clinton have the shared distinction of being the two most disliked presidential candidates in recent history. As such, both are having trouble appealing to their respective party bases.  Trump has shaky support on the conservative right and Clinton on the progressive left.

The Trump-Clinton race may come to a battle of identity politics. Trump scores with male voters, while Clinton does well with women and minority voters. Trump does poorly with establishment Republicans. Clinton flunks with younger Democratic voters.

In previous presidential elections, the candidates' experience and what they stood for counted most. In 2016, not so much. Trump touts his lack of political experience and has lurched around on issues like a bumper car driver. Clinton has been criticized for her experience and her wonkish policy views.

After Ted Cruz and John Kasich bowed out following Trump’s decisive primary win in Indiana, Trump told NBC News he looked forward to a principled general election campaign centered on policy. The next day, Trump returned to form and resumed his “Crooked Hillary” refrain. He hasn’t let up since.

Clinton immediately put up attack ads pointing out Trump’s outlandish statements and dubious policies, only to be warned by supportive political observers that getting into a gutter fight with Trump was a losing strategy. Strategists said Trump methodically disposed of GOP opponents who attacked him,  who famously noted that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t cost him a vote.

Perhaps a more troubling concern in the Clinton camp is the political viability of “outsider” messaging, especially when it comes to international trade and “rigged” systems. A West Virginia voter told a reporter after he voted in his state’s primary that he cast his ballot for Sanders because he “spoke the people.” The only other person running for president he would vote for is Trump.

One Democratic pollster said the problem boils down to a good “origin story.” Trump and Sanders pinpoint what and who is to blame. Clinton tells a more complex and conflicted story. Trump has mastered sloganeering. Sanders has powerful sound bites. Clinton has nuanced, detailed policy papers.

Presidential nominating conventions are more than a month away and there are still a few primaries left, including contests in Oregon and Washington. The eventual nominees are clear. How their campaigns will unfold and the odds on either’s ultimate success remain as unsettled as ever.