One thing looks certain about the outcome of the current US presidential race: the winner is not going to enjoy any kind of honeymoon. They are pretty much guaranteed to be unpopular from the start. And that sets the dynamics for the next presidency, and whether it can achieve much.

Conventionally, the winner brings in a clutch of new senators and congressmen on their coattails, and for the first two years at least, Washington tends to bend to the new president’s will. That doesn’t look likely this time.

US voters are choosing between two very unpopular candidates. Take a look at their net favourability ratings now, compared to the candidates who preceded them, at the same point in the previous three contests.

September net approval ratings in election year:

Republican

Bush +10
McCain +10
Romney +5
Trump -27

 

Democrat

Gore +10
Obama ‘08 +30
Obama ‘12 +10
Clinton -26

 

The unpopularity contest has consequences for the race:

Neither candidate can solidify or enthuse their entire base. Prominent Republicans are withholding support for Trump.  Many moderate Republican voters are at least hesitant. Hillary Clinton still struggles to bring on board all the Sanders supporters.

Neither candidate can easily bring over independent voters. With both candidates having such high negative images, independents are expressing frustration with the contest, and threatening to abstain. This time, there is no centrist third candidate.

It reinforces polarisation. Both candidates are placing stress on the other’s failings, as if to determine which unpopularity is worse than the other. That in turn makes the campaigns more negative than ever.  That, in turn, frustrates more voters.

All these together make the attainment of a positive mandate look beyond reach. Hence, the next presidency starts embattled, rather than enabled.

The battle of the negatives

At this point, Hillary Clinton is losing this contest. Her negatives are sticking, even worsening, whereas Trumps are steady, if not yet noticeably easing.

The problem looks harder for Clinton, as her momentum is heading the wrong way. Since the convention, her net unpopularity has intensified, as a result of further e-mail revelations, an absence from the campaign trail, and the perception of dishonesty over her health issues.

As a result, she has been slipping steadily in the polls. The advantage is currently with Trump.

State polls tell the story clearly. Take seven marginal states, all of which combined to give Obama his wins, and compare how he did, with how Clinton is doing in the latest polls:

Obama ‘08

Obama ‘12

Clinton ‘16

Colorado

+8.9

+5.3

-4.0

Florida

+2.8

+0.9

-4.0

Iowa

+9.5

+5.8

-8.0

New Hampshire

+9.6

+5.6

+1.0

Ohio

+4.6

+3.0

-3.0

Pennsylvania

+10.3

+5.3

+6.0

Virginia

+6.3

+3.9

+3.0

 

Obama’s second mandate was narrower than his first. But Hillary Clinton at the moment is running significantly weaker than Obama in his second contest. If these swing states stay as they are in the latest polling, Trump can win.

Debating negatives

Next, it’s the debates. Trump goes in with the momentum. Clinton has to stop and then reverse a slide.  Her job is the tougher one. A tie leaves Trump with the advantage.

On their current ratings, neither candidate is likely to perform so impressively that their overall image moves into positive territory. Both know they are generally disliked, and not even enthusiastically endorsed by their party loyalists.

Strategists in both campaigns are not plotting a course to winning a popularity contest. This time the game is how to win an unpopularity contest.

The political and policy consequences will start to become all too obvious in 2017.