By Alex Lange, JKL Political Analyst
American presidential elections do not have a reputation of being particularly substantive, and this election cycle is no different. While presidential candidates ordinarily issue a series of major policy papers and give policy speeches, what voters actually base their decision on can change from election to election. Although there has been more attention on this election than usual, historically many voters make up their minds after the Labor Day holiday, so it’s worthwhile taking a look at what the two candidates are basing their case to the American people on.
A striking statistic reported by the Associated Press highlights just how different Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in terms of their willingness to provide relatively detailed policy proposals. While Clinton has issued policy fact sheets totaling 112,735 words, Trump has issued only seven policy proposals totaling about 9,000 words, and most of those were issued while Trump was still competing in the primary elections for the Republican nomination.
Clinton’s detailed policy proposals help her when she targets voters with whom her proposals resonate, such as speaking specifically about addressing drug abuse, autism, or Alzheimer’s disease. This has been interpreted as Clinton aiming to present herself as the policy wonk who can solve many of the nation’s problems in contrast with Trump, who is light on policy. In other words, that her campaign wants the election to be about a choice between the two candidates.
But that analysis ignores the main message the Clinton campaign has driven forward since Trump clinched the nomination of the Republican Party, which is that Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be President, and that he is too risky for America. In doing so, Clinton is actually framing the election as a referendum on whether or not Donald Trump should be President.
A June survey by the Pew Research Center, showed that voters are more unsatisfied with the two candidates than in previous elections, and at the same time, 74% of voters now say that it really matters who wins the election, compared with only 50% who said so during the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Since both candidates are more unpopular than popular, this means that voters who are undecided or unhappy with the candidate nominated by the party they would normally vote for, could end up voting against their candidate (or not voting), provided they are convinced that their candidate is a completely unacceptable choice.
Currently, Donald Trump is the center of attention, and deliberately so. That gives Trump a lot of power over what the election narrative is about, so he may still succeed at redirecting attention towards Hillary Clinton’s problems. But if he continues to be the center of attention for controversial reasons, this election will be a referendum on whether or not he should be President. If he can’t make himself more palatable to voters who think he is unacceptable, while Clinton is seen as an acceptable (though disliked) main-stream alternative, that suits her just fine.