What's missing from the 2016 race: Inspiration

Inspiration missing from the 2016 race
Inspiration missing from the 2016 race

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    Inspiration missing from the 2016 race

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Inspiration missing from the 2016 race 02:25

Story highlights

  • Large swaths of voters are watching the campaign with disgust and little admiration for either candidate
  • That could make it hard to motivate potential voters to show up in November

(CNN)Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump wrapped up their conventions on a high note this summer, hoping to launch their fall campaigns with legions of newly energized activists and a fresh opportunity to rebuild their battered images.

But in key swing districts, large swaths of American voters are watching the campaign -- very closely, in fact -- with an unmistakable level of disgust, and little admiration for either candidate. While a recent Pew Research Center poll found that voter engagement is at its highest level since 1992 -- with 80% of registered voters saying they have thought "quite a lot" about the campaign -- voter satisfaction with the two candidates is at its lowest level in two decades.
    Those seemingly contradictory findings are emerging as one of the biggest unknown factors in the 2016 election, testing the power of the Democratic turnout machine and the wisdom of Trump's virtually non-existent ground game. While turnout in the primaries was robust for both parties -- and passions run strong against both Clinton and Trump -- it is unclear how hard it will be to motivate voters who can't stand either candidate.
    Presidential campaigns are always rough-and-tumble affairs, but they are usually punctuated with elements that simply seem to be missing this year: inspiration, joy and even the sweeping rhetoric that drove voters to the polls. There's nothing this election cycle that echoes George W. Bush's push for "compassionate conservatism" or Barack Obama's call for "hope and change."
    Instead, Americans have a grievance candidate in Donald Trump, who has essentially argued that the America we love is disappearing. He has dabbled in racially charged proposals like his Muslim ban, and engaged in a never-ending series of personal attacks, most recently with a Gold Star family.
    On the other side, voters have Hillary Clinton, who is widely distrusted, generally disliked and largely defined by her ambitions for the White House. Though she earned a 7-point bounce after her party's well-received convention, the biggest story surrounding her candidacy before that weeklong event was the fact that she barely escaped indictment over her use of a personal email server as secretary of state, and was called out by the FBI director as "extremely careless."

    No good options

    That controversy has left people like Jeff Boehm, a medicinal chemist, and his wife Sandy, a retired pre-school teacher from the King of Prussia suburb of Philadelphia, feeling like they have no good options.
    "Frankly, I don't want either candidate. I'm a little fearful of what's going to happen," Sandy Boehm said on a recent morning after watering her lawn in sweltering heat. Trump, she said, "is used to controlling people and running the show, and having everything his way. I don't know what he really stands for."
    "I think he's in it for himself," said Boehm, who is registered as a Democrat. "Because he's a pompous person, he wants to achieve being president. I just feel he wants the prestige."
    Of Clinton, she said, "I used to admire her. She's obviously a very intelligent woman." But she "has done things that are illegal, and she's gotten away with it because of who she is," Boehm said. "People have covered up for her."
    "I wouldn't feel safe with either of them" in the Oval Office, she said.
    Jeff Boehm, who said his chief concern is ensuring that capitalism thrives in this country, noted that Clinton has been far less of a centrist than her husband Bill Clinton was when he ran in the 1990s. She increasingly tilted left in the midst of her fierce competition with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
    "I think we're going to become a one-party government if she's elected," he said, "We're going to head towards Venezuela. That's what I'm afraid of."
    Like his wife, he also believes Clinton lied about her use of a private email server and "was trying to hide something."
    "It's all very sleazy," he said.
    Boehm did not expect to end up in this position, with two choices that he doesn't like. He recalled looking at more than a dozen Republican candidates on the debate stage during the Republican primary and thinking, "Wow, look at all these guys. They're great!"

    'I might stay home'

    "Then the biggest of jerk of them all ends up winning," said Boehm, who added that he will "probably" vote for Trump. "He's got a couple of months. This guy just keeps becoming more and more disappointing. I might stay home. I don't know what I'm going to do."
    For the moment, Clinton is riding a post-convention high that improved her standing against Trump. She made a major push for unity in Philadelphia, courting supporters of Bernie Sanders, as well as independents and Republicans turned off by Trump. And that strategy appears to be paying dividends. A CNN-ORC poll at the end of July found that Clinton improved her share of voters who say her policies would move the country in the right direction (from 43% to 48%).
    A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday indicated Trump lost any momentum he gained from his convention with Clinton leading the GOP nominee by eight points.
    A recent Gallup poll showed that 44% of Americans viewed the Democratic Party more favorably after the convention; while 35% viewed the GOP more favorably. (Alternatively, 52% viewed the Republican Party less favorably after the convention/compared with 42% who viewed Democrats less favorably.)
    But voter discontent has continually resurfaced in polls in recent months. Many voters say their current choice would be more of a vote against the other candidate, rather than an expression of support for the person they ultimately choose.
    "It's a huge number," said veteran pollster Peter Hart, noting that as many as one in five people have said they are dissatisfied with both candidates in recent surveys.
    "What makes this different is that usually it's among independents who say I don't like either candidate. Now it's spilled over into both parties," Hart said. "Usually when you have a nominee, you say 'Oh I like my guy and don't like the other guy.' In this case, there are a significant number of people who say 'I'm not happy with my guy and I'm not happy with the other guy.'"
    In November, he said, "What you have to believe is that if people are so turned off by these candidates, their tendency will be to not go to the polls," he said. "And it is the presidential vote that always drive the turnout. It's going to have a huge impact on down ballot races."

    Intense negativity

    Voters have also been turned off by the intense negativity of the campaign.
    The Republican convention turned into a weeklong condemnation of Clinton, with the crowd shouting "Lock her up" as Trump offered a dark vision of America in crisis. The Democratic convention, in turn, centered on shredding Trump as a racist, misogynistic bully who is unfit for the White House.
    Clinton faces the historically difficult position of running for a third consecutive Democratic term at a time when voters want change.
    On top of that, she has been in the public eye for 40 years, complicating her effort to fashion herself as the agent of change many voters are seeking this cycle. Those who have been most effective at making her case, like President Barack Obama, have testified to her resilience.
    "She's tested. She's ready. She never quits," he tweeted after her convention speech.
    But those aren't the sorts of personality traits that generally get people fired up to vote.
    At her convention, Clinton tried to strike a tenuous balance between hopeful themes and a recognition of the economic and national security anxiety facing the nation, arguing that America is facing a "moment of reckoning" as "powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart."
    She got a convention bounce, but it remains to be seen whether her arguments for positivity will motivate Democrats the way Trump's dark view of America in chaos has resonated with Republicans and some independents.
    "I know everyone says our economy is good right now, but I think it's kind of smoke and mirrors," said Nick Zydmont, a 32-year-old landscaper who lives in the Cleveland suburbs as he watched his children ride their bikes in the driveway on a recent morning. "I still know a lot of people without work, and company layoffs still. Just from talking with everyone -- work is slow."
    Zydmont enthusiastically backed Obama in previous elections, but with those economic worries in mind, he is more inclined to back Trump this time (though he is unenthused about either candidate).
    "With everything that happened with Clinton -- the scandal or whatever -- I don't know, I just really never felt anything good about her," he said. "I think she's just kind of sly, trying to pull one over on us. How she lied about stuff and she's getting caught in her lies."
    "I think (the Democrats) could have found somebody better. Both parties could have found someone better," Zydmont said. On the upside with Trump, he noted there would be checks and balances: "He's got to go through Congress before he does anything crazy."
    Diane Kesczyk, a 5th grade teacher from King of Prussia, said she is fairly certain that she will vote for Clinton. But she listened to Trump's convention speech with an open mind and found his message about the need for law and order appealing.
    Of Clinton, she said, "I wouldn't say I'm excited. I'm not excited. I would be interested in hearing from a third party, but I'm pretty sure I'll vote for her."
    Explaining her trepidation, Kesczyk, like so many others, pointed to the email scandal: "I feel like she is the most qualified, for sure. But she's made mistakes," she said. "I didn't realize how much she put us in danger. That was something I was surprised by."
    On the other hand, she said, "I feel like Trump would cause us problems. He doesn't have that political correctness about him -- and I feel like that would put us in trouble," said Kesczyk, a 48-year-old Democrat. "There should be political correctness. As far as with other countries, President Obama has done a great job with that. And that's my hesitation with Trump. He tends to really irritate people. He doesn't have the bedside manner. That concerns me for sure with foreign relations."
    As November approaches, there are some voters who say they are getting more excited, but they are quick to note their reservations about the candidates.
    Jack Whaling, a 39-year-old painter, said he is voting for Trump. But if he was advising the Republican nominee, "I'd tell him to keep his mouth shut."
    "Like that thing with the handicapped," Whaling said, recalling the instance where Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter. "That bothered me, because I have handicapped people in my family. I don't know if he really meant it. ... He speaks before he thinks and that's the problem on some of this stuff."