The presidential primaries are a long way from over, but they’ve already produced an unhappy paradox: Both parties appear headed toward nominating the two most unpopular candidates in the country.
Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, has accomplished an unprecedented feat: More than two-thirds of voters say they can’t stand him. In the same unpopularity contest, Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, is runner-up: more than half the voters don’t like her. Ted Cruz, who still has a shot at the GOP nomination, is almost as unpopular as Clinton.
In every major poll conducted since February, all three leading candidates are “underwater”: more voters view them unfavorably than favorably. The negative numbers are driven mostly by partisan animosity. Republicans are divided over Trump, and Democrats are divided over Clinton – but voters in each party are united in disliking the other side’s front-runners by roughly 90 percent in each case.
When the Pew Research Center asked voters how good a president each candidate would make, the results were striking: 67 percent of Democrats said they thought Trump would make a “terrible” president. Almost as many Republicans, 58 percent, said they thought Clinton would be terrible in the White House.
“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Carroll Doherty, Pew’s chief political pollster, told me.
And that has troubling implications for the next president, no matter who he or she turns out to be. After an election, presidents must bridge the partisan divide to get much done. But no need to wait for inauguration day 2017. We already know how this is going to turn out: We’re pre-polarized.
It’s easy to forget, but in 2009 Barack Obama arrived at the White House with a massive 68 percent positive rating in the Gallup Poll, including 41 percent of Republicans. Eight years earlier, the newly elected George W. Bush enjoyed a 63 percent positive rating, including 37 percent of Democrats.
The honeymoon didn’t last, but the numbers meant that these presidents at least had the benefit of the doubt from most independent voters and a significant minority in the other party. They both had a base of popular support from which to negotiate with Congress. But that’s unlikely to happen this time.
With the next president already held in record low esteem, both parties will be tempted to follow the strategic example set by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell during Obama’s presidency: constant confrontation, instead of bipartisanship, to heighten the chance of gaining ground in the next election.
“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off Obama’s proposals,” McConnell explained to The Atlantic in 2011. “The only way the American people would know a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan.”
Most voters still tell pollsters they want Congress and the president to work together and get something done, of course. But that sentiment never seems to be powerful enough to overcome partisan distaste for the other side. Political scientists call this “affective polarization” – meaning the two sides just dislike each other more.
Whatever you call it, it produces the central political frustration of our time: political parties that see little reason to cooperate, and plenty of reasons to fight.
Is anyone pushing back?
Last week, a bipartisan group called “No Labels” unveiled a hopeful centrist program: a glossy catalog of sensible policy ideas, complete with poll numbers to show that each has wide public support.
Among the proposals: Allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies to lower prices, which gets 82 percent support. Passing a “no budget, no pay” law to withhold Congress’ paychecks if a federal budget isn’t passed, which gets 81 percent support. Increased funding for child care and early education; 79 percent support.
The group has assembled a centrist “problem solver” caucus in Congress, with almost 80 members drawn equally from both parties.
“We’re trying to disrupt the dysfunction,” said former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who chairs the organization along with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican.
“How do we encourage members of Congress and the next president to take these risks? Part of it is to say there is more support for these ideas than you think,” Lieberman said. “The next president has to ask: What’s my goal here? Do I just want to get re-elected, or do I want to build a record?”
The group has a practical side, too. It’s raising money to protect centrist members of Congress from being knocked out of office in primary elections.
It’s a worthy effort. But the hill they are climbing looks steeper than ever – because in the presidential campaign each side already is demonizing the other. That will make it even more difficult for the next president to bring the two parties together after January 2017.
Doyle McManus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.