This year’s presidential election is historic for a number of reasons, most of which are nothing to be proud of. Two wildly unpopular candidates are simply fighting to be the least worst option, while anti-establishment and third-party campaigns have put up the best challenge this country has seen since Ross Perot spoiled things for George H. W. Bush in 1992.
As the clear front-runner and nominally more electable of the two major party candidates, Hillary Clinton has an opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom of state-party affiliation and change the future of presidential politics. It’s a long shot, but she could even turn Louisiana or other Deep South states. But to do that, she’s going to have to make some changes.
She’s certainly starting at a disadvantage. In a recent poll by WWL-TV in New Orleans, Clinton trailed Trump by 8 percent among likely voters. That’s an improvement on the 15 percent deficit she held in May, but it’s unlikely to sink much lower unless Trump pulls a Nick Saban and calls someone a “coonass” in the debates.
It doesn’t hurt that Louisiana has a Democratic governor whose approval has been steadily rising since he got into office. After a reasonable job handling the budget crisis bequeathed him by Bobby Jindal and some strong leadership during a truly awful summer, John Bel Edwards can only be an asset for Clinton in Louisiana. Still, Clinton faces an uphill battle to cut the deficit any more by November.
Clinton’s problem now is that her strategy is pushing in the wrong direction. She’s spent the last few months courting endorsements from Bush-era administration officials and other so-called respectable Republicans, as if undecided Americans have been waiting on Paul Wolfowitz’s go-ahead to make the jump to Clinton’s boat. No one, other than the kind of D.C. hacks who worship moderation and bipartisanship above all else, is going to be swayed by this. Rather than reaching even further across the aisle from her already-right-of-center starting point, she needs to pull to the left.
It seems Clinton and her campaign learned all the wrong lessons from Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge—rather than making her a more positive, populist candidate, the campaign has only grown more reactive and paranoid. At the Democratic National Convention, it looked for a time like Clinton would push her own message rather than fear-monger about a Trump presidency, but she soon reverted to type.
This is borne out the campaign’s weird obsession with smearing its opponents’ supporters. During the primaries, it was the mythical Bernie Bros, a marauding gang of sexist harassers terrorizing Clinton supporters’ timelines (one such Bro was unlucky enough to lose his job after calling a high-level Clinton operative a “scumbag” on Twitter). Now, Clinton has placed Trump supporters into a “Basket of Deplorables,” which, aside from assuming fully half of Trump supporters are motivated by racism and xenophobia, sounds more like an insult a Jane Austen character would come up with over tea and scones than what we should expect from a serious candidate in 2016.
It may sound crazy, but Clinton could pick up, and maybe even inspire, more voters by pushing an economically populist message than by insulting voters and shaking hands with the architects of the Iraq war. Because Trump’s voters aren’t motivated by racism so much as by economic anxiety—notice how anti-immigrant messaging always come back to jobs. She should promise to prosecute those banks and executives that orchestrated the 2008 market crash and got off scot-free. She should work with unions and push government programs that will create and sponsor employment. She should rework Obamacare into a national, single-payer healthcare program that actually works — that could only help burnish her image as a technocrat who can get things done.
With a message of positivity to counteract Trump’s apocalyptic, fascism-tinged rhetoric, Clinton can forge her own path away from reactivity and turn this election (which she’s probably going to win anyway) into a landslide. And who knows? Maybe Louisiana will get caught up in it, too.