Why 'deplorables' spat is here to stay

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  • Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both seeking to capitalize on the "deplorables" flap
  • They each have reason to think it will work to their benefit

(CNN)There's a reason why the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns are behaving like the election could turn on a single, newly coined noun -- "deplorables."

The political firestorm over the Democratic nominee's use of the word to demean half of her rival's supporters might seem like another of the bizarre spats that trivialize presidential races. But the controversy has turned into one of those rare campaign moments when strategists for each candidate are happy to trade fire on the same ground.
    "We have the support of cops and soldiers and carpenters and welders and accountants and lawyers, the young and the old, and millions of working class families all over this nation," Trump said in Iowa Tuesday. "My opponent slanders you as deplorable and irredeemable."
    But the Clinton campaign -- struggling to move past damaging video showing the Democratic nominee stumbling and wobbly over the weekend -- is hardly in a defensive crouch on the "deplorables" comment. Instead, the plan is to turn the tables on Trump with the implicit accusation that if anyone is deplorable, it is him.
    A new campaign ad features footage of Trump warning that anyone with a low opinion of its citizens is unfit to lead the nation -- then uses a torrent of his inflammatory statements about Mexicans, women, African-Americans, the disabled and Muslims, to condemn the GOP nominee out of his own mouth.
    With Clinton off the trail as she recovers from pneumonia, prolonging the "deplorable" meme also has the virtue of keeping campaign conversation away from controversies that the campaign has more trouble finessing -- like her email server or its patchy disclosure about the state of her health.
    Both sides have solid reasons to want this controversy play out.
    The "deplorables" saga represents a passport for each campaign to reach the distinct coalition of voters they need most to win November's election.
    For Trump, Clinton's dismissal of many of his supporters as racists, xenophobes, sexists, Islamaphobes and bigots is a gift that allows him to recreate his victorious GOP primary persona of a champion of blue collar Americans demonized by patronizing East coast political elites.
    It's exactly the kind of posture the billionaire New Yorker needs to electrify white, working class voters in the swing states in the industrial Midwest, where he must outperform recent GOP nominees to win an Electoral College majority.
    The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, knows its best hope of victory is maximizing the Obama coalition from 2012 -- especially young people, minorities and single women -- exactly the kind of voters likely to be most horrified by such a dire picture of the Trump coalition and the man who leads it.
    "This is not a mistake on Clinton's part. She is looking up at the polls, they are tightening and there is an enthusiasm gap in favor of Trump," said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist who is not affiliated with the Trump campaign. "She is engaging in what some would argue is a high-risk strategy to gin up support among voters who just might not turn out."
    O'Connell added: "Turnout is the biggest issue for her. The map is the biggest issue for Trump."
    While Trump has enjoyed his best few weeks of the general election campaign, pulling into a margin of error race with Clinton in national polls and trimming her lead in swing states, the mathematics of the race are still formidable for him.
    In simple terms, he needs to win all of the states Mitt Romney captured in 2012, then add Florida, Ohio and Iowa. Then he needs to peel at least one big Democratic state out of Clinton's electoral column. His best bets look like rust belt heartlands Michigan and Pennsylvania.
    Trump's rhetoric since Clinton's remark suggests a strategy of fusing his anti-trade, America First message, attacks on Clinton's "deplorables" jab in a bid to win over blue collar and middle class voters in the Midwest.
    The Trump campaign is blitzing out the message through fundraising solicitations, TV appearances and a new ad slamming Clinton for "viciously demonizing hard working people like you."
    Clinton's comments, are "typical of the elite politicians. and if you don't agree with them then somehow you're a deplorable person," Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said on CNN's "The Lead" with Jake Tapper.
    But keeping the word "deplorables" in circulation forces senior members of Trump's team onto a tough political spot when asked about people with extreme views who have voiced support for his campaign.
    For example, GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence had to explain at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday why he had passed up a chance on CNN on Monday to slam former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, as "deplorable."
    Pence said he and Trump had repeatedly disavowed Duke, but added, "I'm also not going to validate the language that Hillary Clinton used to describe the American people."
    Clinton's vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, pounced.
    "If you cannot call out bigotry, if you cannot call out racism, xenophobia, if you can't call it out and you stand back and you're silent around it you're enabling it to grow," he said Tuesday.
    President Barack Obama conducted the most artful demonstration of Clinton's response to the "deplorable" saga at a rally in Philadelphia Tuesday, that showed the importance the campaign attaches to thwarting Trump's attempt to position himself as the savior of regular Americans.
    "He's not offering any real policies or plans, just offering division and offering fear," Obama said, slamming Trump's "dark, pessimistic vision," playing into Clinton's original argument that her rival is beyond the political pale.
    Then, the President launched into savage mockery of Trump's self image as a blue collar billionaire who can put Rustbelt voters in play.
    "He spent most of his life trying to stay as far away from working people as he could," Obama said. "He wasn't going to let you on his golf course. He wasn't going to let you buy in his condo. And now suddenly this guy is going to be your champion?"