Americans Can’t Stop Watching This Car Wreck of an Election
Policy + Politics

Americans Can’t Stop Watching This Car Wreck of an Election

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As the presidential campaign approaches a critical midpoint, with the two parties gathering later this month to nominate their standard bearers, a new survey by the Pew Research Center shows Democrat Hillary Clinton with a nine-point lead over presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.

Clinton, the former secretary of state who just dodged an indictment for mishandling top secret email documents, leads the billionaire businessman 51 percent to 42 percent, according to the new survey.

Related: GOP Chief Calls for Unity, but Trump Shows Just How Hard That Will Be

In a hypothetical three-way race including Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Clinton still leads, with 45 percent to 36 percent for Trump and 11 percent for Johnson, a former New Mexico governor.

That all roughly squares with the latest Real Clear Politics national polling averages. They show Clinton leading Trump by 4.7 points -- 45.6 percent to 40.9 percent

But one of the other findings in the new Pew national survey, conducted June 15 to 26, is that voters have rarely been more disgusted and disenchanted with their choices for president.

Both Trump, the bombastic real estate magnate, and Clinton, the former New York senator and first lady, have consistently garnered negative ratings in the upper stratosphere. Indeed, four in ten registered voters say they are struggling to decide who to vote for because neither is a good choice, according to Pew.

With less than two weeks before the Republican National Convention convenes in Cleveland and three weeks before Democrats gather in Philadelphia, the new poll finds that overall satisfaction with the choices is at the lowest point in two decades.  Just 43 percent of registered Democrats said they were satisfied with the choice of Clinton and 40 percent of registered Republicans say they are okay with Trump.

Related: GOP Demands New Criminal Investigation of Clinton, This Time for Perjury

Clinton has alienated many in her own party with the controversy over her mishandling of highly sensitive emails during her four years as secretary of state and her close ties to Wall Street and the political establishment. Trump, meanwhile, has alienated many with his harsh policies on immigration and national security, his steady attacks on Muslims, Mexican Americans, blacks and other minorities, and his frequent jabs at prominent members of his own party.

Trump has labeled Clinton “Crooked Hillary” and “the worst” secretary of state in U.S. history. And now, in the wake of FBI Director James B.  Comey’s revelation this week that Clinton and her staff had been “extremely careless” in handling classified material, Trump says she is not qualified to serve as president. Clinton, for her part, has called Trump a dangerous no-nothing and business charlatan who is temperamentally unfit to serve in the White House. 

The survey noted that the presidential campaign “is widely viewed as excessively negative and not focused on important issues.” For instance, only 27 percent of registered voters say the campaign is “focused on important policy debates.” That is seven points lower than in December, before the Democratic and Republican primaries officially began.

Ron Bonjean, a Washington policy consultant and former Republican congressional communications director, said that voters are caught in the dilemma of choosing between Clinton, a “status quo” candidate, Trump, a political outsider “with relatively no experience in government coming in to take a wrecking ball to Washington.”

Related: The Hilarious Reasons Members of Congress Gave for Skipping a Meeting with Trump

“The referendum is now on whether Trump is ready to be president, not whether we should have another four years with a Democratic administration,” Bonjean said in an interview. “And that’s unusual. Usually, the referendum is on the ruling party and whether they’re still fit to govern. Instead, it has shifted over to Donald Trump, with non-stop media coverage on his gaffes of the week.”

However, even with rampant voter dissatisfaction with the campaign and the candidates, Pew researchers found that “has done nothing to dampen interest” in the 2016 election. On the contrary, 80 percent of registered voters said they have given “quite a lot” of thought to the election. Four years ago, by comparison, only 67 percent of voters had spent much time thinking about Obama’s race against GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

There are a number of reasons for this fascination, according to the researchers, including the fact that the vast majority of Americans now understand that there is a great deal at stake in the outcome of the election. A Trump victory would likely result in a sea change in policies on immigration, defense, national security, trade, Social security and taxes, just to name a few.

Moreover, while many are alarmed by the quality of the two major-party candidates, three fourths of voters interviewed said they find the campaign very interesting. That is hardly a surprise in light of the wall-to-wall media coverage of the primary contests and Trump’s enormous talent for generating controversy and garnering attention with his often outlandish pronouncements.

Related: The Hilarious Reasons Members of Congress Gave for Skipping a Meeting with Trump

In some ways, voters are responding to the campaign as they might react to a ten-car pileup: They are horrified by what they see, but can’t look away.

The robust interest in presidential politics this year could have important ramifications. One might be a substantial increase in voter turnout in November, when just a couple of percentage points could make the difference in key battleground states, especially in Florida, Virginia and the Northeastern and Midwestern Rust Belt states.

Larry J. Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist and chief author of the Crystal Ball political website, said yesterday that “we've been predicting high turnout when others have been saying it will be low.”

“Why have we come down this way? Because of negative partisanship, a growing and defining part of our elections,” he said in an email. “People show up at the polls to vote against the candidate they hate, as much or more than to vote for the candidate they back.”

“I just keep thinking about [President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s] tag line in all his TV ads in 1964. ‘Vote on Nov. 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.’ And most Americans recognize that.”