Personal brawls dominate 2016 race

Updated 9:22 AM EDT, Thu September 8, 2016
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Story highlights

Clinton and Trump are each attacking each other's character and personality

Strategists on both sides say policy is more absent from the 2016 race than previous elections

(CNN) —  

There’s one thing largely missing from the 2016 race: a debate about what Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would actually do as president.

The final stretch of the campaign is opening this week with a torrent of insults and name calling that make clear the election will be more about the candidates and their personalities than their policy prescriptions for the nation’s ills.

The rhetorical warfare was on display Wednesday when Trump dismissed Clinton’s foreign policy record by accusing her of being “trigger happy and very unstable.” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, shot back at Trump in a statement that likened him to a “schoolyard bully who can’t rely on facts or issues.”

Presidential campaigns are always rough and tumble affairs but the 2016 race is emerging as a particularly personal – and nasty – race. Candidates in previous cycles traded plenty of tough barbs but also sparred over policy surrounding health care, financial regulation and taxes. But in a year in which both candidates are deeply unpopular, strategists say their only choice is to make the election a referendum on the other person.

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“Hillary with her serial dishonesty and corruption allegations, and Trump, just with everything – people are still trying to make that determination about both of them: Are either of these people qualified to do the job?” said Republican pollster Dan Judy of North Star Opinion Research. “It’s harder to get to the policy stuff when you’re hung up on that.”

Policy success

Presidential hopefuls have found success before by casting the entire election as a make-or-break decision on one important issue. Bill Clinton’s middle-class economic appeal defined the 1992 election, and Barack Obama’s vision of 2008 as a fundamental transformation of the economy helped him defeat John McCain.

In 2016, though, “we’re not finding that there are policy issues that are being framed. What they’re framing is the other candidates,” said Richard Perloff, a political science and communications professor at Cleveland State University.

“Trump is going to make it about Clinton because he lives in a world of verbal aggression. Much of what he’s doing is framing it as ‘Crooked Hillary,’ untrustworthy Hillary – and she’s doing the same to him,” he said. “What we’re seeing is framing of image, framing of personality.”

Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, bemoaned the tenor of the Clinton-Trump race in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, this campaign has devolved into a who lies more or who is the worst candidate,” he said. “I think we have to get back to a discussion of who is the better candidate?”

The candidates delved into some national security policy issues Wednesday night at the “Commander in Chief” forum hosted by NBC NEWS. The event exposed the gulf between Trump and Clinton on issues such as combating ISIS and managing the military.

Clinton’s backers say the candidate herself craves a policy-focused race – noting that she has rolled out detailed proposals on subjects ranging from national security and ISIS to mental health.

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They say that in attacking Trump, she is simply playing the hand she was dealt. Many point fingers at the news media, saying Trump’s personal attacks and outbursts have received too much attention.

“The fact is that there is so much titillation from and about Donald Trump that there’s very little bandwidth left for much of a focus on policy,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin of Hart Research Associates, who works with the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA. “You are much more likely to get covered when you call the other person a name than when you make a substantive speech about public policy.”

The focus on Trump’s foibles has at times helped Clinton. In the weeks after Trump’s assertion that an Indiana-born judge couldn’t rule fairly because of his Mexican heritage and his fight with the Gold Star Khan family, Trump tumbled in the polls as Clinton built a double-digit lead.

But that lead has narrowed amid a steady string of reports about the Clinton Foundation’s ties to the State Department, and Clinton’s use of a private email server – all amplified by Republicans.

Her allies say the campaign about personality, not policy, might help her defeat Trump – but at a long-term cost.

“This has been harmful to Hillary Clinton in that I am absolutely certain that people would feel more positively toward her if they were able to hear more clearly what it is she wants to do to make their lives better,” Garin said.

“But given the tone and tenor of the campaign, it has been very hard to communicate much of that,” he said, pointing to news media. “And, look, the reality is that unlike any other election, at the presidential level, what people hear and see on the news is at least as important a driver – and probably a more important driver – of their attitudes than what they see on advertisements.”

Not shying away

Of course, Clinton isn’t shying away from the fight. With less than three weeks before the first presidential debate, she has shown an eagerness in recent days to attack Trump more directly.

Speaking with reporters aboard her campaign plane Tuesday, she blasted Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.

“He clearly has something to hide. We don’t know exactly what it is but we are getting better guesses about what it probably is,” she said.

At a rally in North Carolina on Tuesday night, Trump – who in the GOP primary attached nicknames like “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco” to his opponents – claimed that Clinton “never” talks about policy.

“All she does is a total hit job on Donald Trump,” he said.

He mocked Clinton’s interview with the FBI over her private email server, and said her destruction of old phones was an effort to cover up “very, very – and I mean very – shady activity.”

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Trump, though, is particularly difficult to engage on policy. He’s abandoned positions he’s taken in previous years – asserting now that he’s always opposed military interventions that he’s publicly supported in the past – and has reversed himself within days on issues like the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Trump called Wednesday for a major increase in military funding, but didn’t offer any details on how he’d fund that increase.

“I feel like people are making this more complicated than it is. It’s not that he’s changing positions – it’s that he doesn’t have positions,” said Judy, the GOP pollster.

He said Americans consistently assert that they want to hear more about issues and policy. But for Clinton and Trump, there’s a different standard.

“Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two of the most well-known, well-defined candidates for president, for better or for worse, we’ve had running at the same time for maybe 100 years,” Judy said. “People know both of these candidates really well, and have sort of set opinions on them that don’t really fluctuate with any particular policy or ideology.”