Clinton vs. Trump -- the strengths, the weaknesses

Story highlights

  • Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are their parties' presumptive nominees
  • As primary season winds down, Julian Zelizer looks at what it has taught us about their strengths and weaknesses

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump.

Barring a big surprise, that's your choice of major party candidates in the November election, like it or not. And with almost all of the primaries behind us, we know a lot more about their strengths and weaknesses.
    As we head toward the party conventions in late July and as a result of the vigorous competition in the primaries, voters have a better sense of what to expect when Clinton and Trump perform on the national election stage.
    Here's a look at their pluses and minuses:

    Hillary Clinton's campaign strengths

    1. Fighter: Clinton, once again, has proven to be a formidable political fighter. She does not give in easily and can punch back hard in adversity. During her many encounters with Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as during the congressional hearings into Benghazi, she has proved that she could do remarkably well when confronted by political opponents who question every word that she utters. Aside from the debates, she has proven to be a public official who can absorb many body blows, still maintaining her standing in the polls and able to attract votes. Her blistering speech last week warning about the dangers the nation, and the world, would face if Donald Trump had access to nuclear weapons painted him in a devastating light and goaded him into an angry response that seemed only to confirm her warnings.
    2. Coalition builder: With the voting results in many primary states, Clinton also demonstrated the ability to build broad electoral coalitions in different parts of the country, something that will be pivotal in the swing states during the general election. This has been the key to her success against Sanders, who often had trouble reaching beyond his core supporters of younger, educated and independent voters. Clinton's appeal as a strong partisan leader has been a big attraction to different kinds of voters and she has been able to develop strong loyalties among groups such as African-American voters.
    3. Crusader for Democratic causes: Clinton has shown that she can articulate and defend a robust Democratic domestic agenda even though she is often criticized by progressives for being too much in the center. Over the course of the primaries she has heard and seen the growing unrest in the Democratic electorate and the demand for a more progressive set of policies. She has been willing and capable of adapting by becoming more vocal on issues like the national minimum wage and a stronger health care system. While she needs to do much more work to convince many Democrats that she won't turn away from her promises, she has done well.
    4. She would be the first female president: This makes her candidacy truly historic. Although too often dismissed as the "gender card," the possibility that Americans could elect a female president would be one of the biggest landmarks in American political history. The decision would mark a huge step forward in a nation where women were not even allowed to vote until 1920 and where gender inequality and sexism remains part of the national culture.
    5. Ties to Democratic power centers: Clinton has developed strong relations with Democratic elected officials and candidates whom she is helping in Senate and House races. This is an important asset. Often dismissed by her opponents as representing ties to the "establishment," these connections will be instrumental to ensuring the best possible relations with Congress if Clinton is elected. Rather than shy away, she needs to make this part of her campaign case.

    Clinton's campaign weaknesses:

    1. Can she be trusted? The most essential problem Clinton faces has to do with trust. Some of the problem has to do with the legacy of her husband, who some Democrats felt betrayed them during the 1990s on issues like NAFTA and welfare reform. Yet Clinton has contributed to her low ranking for trustworthiness with the unusual way she handled her email as secretary of state, by setting up a private computer server outside the official system.
    2. Hiding stuff: For all her savvy Clinton has shown a tendency to hide information rather than take the risk of being more open. This was evident in the way she handled the email controversy by giving a variety of different explanations and in her refusal to show Americans what she said in the infamous Goldman Sachs speeches. The perception of covering up the facts, even more than the alleged wrongdoing, has continued to create ongoing controversy and questions. Moreover, the FBI investigation into Clinton's handling of email is ongoing and it could adversely affect her reputation, even if the probe ends without charges being filed.
    3. Where's the vision? A key weakness comes down to what former President George H.W. Bush once called the "vision thing." To be sure, the vision thing is often exaggerated. Candidates can sometimes avoid grandiose mission statements and do quite well. But at some level the winners in American history have inspired people to get behind their visions. This was certainly the case with Barack Obama, who drew millions into a campaign that promised to fundamentally change the course of policy and politics that had been undertaken by President George W. Bush, and with President Ronald Reagan when he called for a new era after the broken promises of the 1960s and 1970s. Trump has benefited from a concise slogan -- Make America Great Again -- while Clinton has struggled to come up with an enduring rationale for her candidacy.
    4. Not a natural campaigner: Clinton has struggled to match the enthusiasm Sanders and Trump have evoked on the campaign trail and has even admitted that campaigning is not her strength, in contrast to Bill Clinton.

    Donald Trump's campaign strengths:

    1. Master of the media: If there is one strength that stands above all others it has to do with the media. Despite blasting reporters in a recent press conference, Donald Trump has proven that he has a crafty feel for the way the modern news media and social media work, and has the capacity to shape and direct conversations in the direction that he wants. He has the uncanny ability to make statements that will dominate news discussion for days and has a feel for the arguments that will capture attention.
    2. Turning flip-flops into a positive: He has also learned to use the flip-flop to his advantage. Whereas many politicians, like Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in 2004, have been greatly damaged by taking different sides of the same position, Trump often gets away with it. He says many different things, providing a little bit for many to agree with. He refuses to get pinned down when questioned about these inconsistencies. He has argued that flexibility is a positive, particularly in a president who needs to negotiate with Congress and leaders overseas.
    3. Willing to break the mold: Trump is unafraid to advocate unorthodox views. In an era when many politicians, including Clinton, instinctively back away from any statement that defies the standard party line, Trump seems willing to do so with reckless abandon. And so far it has worked. He has made a number of arguments, such as staunchly defending Social Security or offering words of praise to Planned Parenthood, that would have doomed most Republican presidential contenders in years past. Given that voters think so little of the status quo, he has found more leeway by just being different than the politicians they heard in earlier years.
    4. Speaks to alienated voters: He is a candidate who knows to speak to the anger that exists in the electorate. Like others who have come before him, for example George Wallace in 1968, he has a strong feel for the anger in the electorate and knows how to tap into this and is not shy about doing so. He is willing to say the things that some voters want to hear, even if there are potential risks in doing so, and he can connect with that anger in a way that has proven difficult for others, like Jeb Bush, or takes him into territory they would rather avoid. He doesn't seem to have any boundaries as to what kinds of rhetoric he is willing to use, as has been evident with his words about immigrants.
    5. Being an outsider at a moment people detest "The System": This is one way in which Trump can use his inexperience and distance from Washington to his advantage. At a moment when many voters don't trust anything in Washington, he can claim that he is not part of this city.

    Trump's campaign weaknesses

    1 Flirting with extremism: Repeatedly Trump has made statements that demonstrate his willingness to court dangerous extremists in the electorate. He played word games when Jake Tapper questioned him about condemning the KKK. He has made statements about immigrants, women and Muslims that play directly to some of the most nativist, sexist and xenophobic parts of the electorate. His comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as well as his doubts that a Muslim judge could fairly decide the case, even led his more enthusiastic supporters, like Newt Gingrich, to dissociate themselves from such racist claims.
    2. Unpredictable, erratic and angry? Trump is unpredictable, he is erratic and it is unknown how or what he would do if he was in the White House. This means, at some level, he is a big risk. This gives Democrats a significant opening to play into the doubts of the electorate. His hair-trigger temper has popped up several times, providing an unsettling image of what he would be like as the nation's commander in chief. It also raises questions, as has been the case in his attacks on the judge handling the Trump University case, about whether he will be willing to work within the boundaries of the Constitution.
    3. Lukewarm support from GOP establishment: He also has been unable to win enthusiastic support from many in the GOP. While the Never Trump movement was paper thin and didn't last, much of the support from Republicans remains lukewarm, a grudging acceptance that he is the only choice that Republicans will have. He will need the support of around 90% to 95% of the Republican electorate to win. He will also need high levels of voter turnout and strong ground mobilization to win in swing states, all of which remains in doubt at this time.
    4. Controversy galore: He is saddled with an enormous amount of controversy and scandal, not all of which has surfaced. Just in recent weeks the discussions about Trump University and ongoing questions about why he won't release his tax returns, as well as alleged connections to organized crime, along with the many comments that can be dug up about his personal life, will remain a vulnerability. The best news for him is that the Clinton controversies of the past 25 years can cancel some of this out or at least neutralize it in the final vote. But there is a long history of controversy involving Trump and further scrutiny by the media could raise new doubts among voters.
    5. Weak on knowledge of policy issues: During the primaries Trump has often shown a very thin grasp of some basic policy issues. Sometimes it quickly became evident that statements he made about a certain area of policy were just wrong. And while it is true that he has been able to win the nomination anyway, ignorance can hurt when he faces off against Clinton, one of the smartest and most experienced people in the political realm. He has made baffling statements about allowing Japan and South Korea to have nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, he was stumped by a question about the nuclear triad and was confused by a question about "Brexit," the upcoming referendum in which United Kingdom voters will decide whether Britain should leave the European Union, just to name a few examples.
    These strengths and weaknesses are likely to drive the dynamic of the general election, even though it's likely that new issues will arise.
    To be sure, there is room for candidates to work on some of their weaknesses and bring to the forefront aspects of their candidacies that have not yet been on the table. But the basic outlines of candidates do tend to become clear in the first phase of the election. We have learned a lot and have a much better feel for the key elements of the race ahead.