Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump rank as the two most disliked and distrusted major-party presidential candidates in more than six decades of political polling — a fact not lost on either candidate as they aim for a breakout performance at the upcoming first presidential debate at Hofstra University.
The 2016 presidential race marks the first time since 1952 — the year pollsters started asking voters to rate their opinion of candidates — that the character of both major-party nominees has been viewed more negatively than favorably, according to a study by Cornell University’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research.
Kathleen Weldon, a researcher at the Roper Center, who analyzed more than 2,500 presidential political polls dating to 1952, said that before Trump and Clinton, George Wallace, the ex-Alabama governor who defended segregation, was the most unpopular candidate to run for president, with 53 percent of Americans reporting a negative opinion of the 1968 independent candidate.
National polls routinely show Trump and Clinton with disapproval ratings well above Wallace’s — in the high 50s to low 60s, Weldon said.
“No candidates have had as high unfavorable ratings as Trump and Clinton since 1952,” Weldon said in a phone interview. “Both levels of polling are unprecedented, individually and together. We’ve never had an individual candidate hit a 60 percent negative rating . . . to have both above 50 percent is quite remarkable.”
Both candidates bring with them to the debate stage the bagagge of decades spent in the public spotlight, making it all but impossible to change the minds of debate viewers who formed an opinion of the candidates long ago, said Richard Himelfarb, an associate professor of political science at Hofstra University.
Clinton has faced scrutiny over her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, and has fought back against allegations that donors to her family’s charitable nonprofit, the Clinton Foundation, received special treatment from the State Department.
Meanwhile, Trump has resisted mounting calls from Democrats and Republicans alike to release his tax returns for public review, as has been done by every presidential candidate since 1976, and has faced questions over his business practices, including allegations that he bilked students of Trump University, a now-defunct for-profit business school, out of money with exorbitant fees and deceptive marketing.
“The die has been cast,” Himelfarb said. “These are two of the most well-known people in America. There’s not a lot that anyone can learn between now and the election that’s going to cause them to think differently than they do about these two.”
Even as Clinton experienced an uptick in her overall polling numbers against Trump after July’s Republican and Democratic nominating conventions, the trust and approval ratings for each candidate barely budged in a host of national polls.
Poll numbers have since leveled off and recent national polls have shown a tighter race shaping up with Clinton ahead by an average of 3.0 percentage points, according to the poll tracking website Real Clear Politics, which analyzed the results of all major national polls released between Sept 8. and Sept. 23.
As overall poll numbers have fluctuated since the convention, the negative approval ratings for each candidate have held steady.
A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Sept. 1 found 61 percent of voters believe Trump is untrustworthy, compared with 59 percent who said the same of Clinton.
In New York, Clinton leads Trump by 21 points among registered voters, according to a Siena College poll released Sept. 20, but on the question of trust, both candidates share negative ratings.
Sixty-seven percent of those polled by Siena said they did not believe Trump was honest or trustworthy, compared to 58 percent who had the same opinion of Clinton.
On Long Island, Trump leads Clinton by 4 points according to a Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll released on Thursday, but a majority of local voters view both candidates unfavorably — 57 percent reported an unfavorable opinion of Clinton and 55 percent had an unfavorable impression of Trump.
Trump and Clinton’s record-high unfavorable ratings may be due in part to an increasingly polarized electorate, said Gary Nordlinger, a professor at the George Washington University graduate school of Political Management, in Washington, D.C.
Nordlinger said Trump and Clinton will be hard-pressed to change the opinion of voters who studies show are more partisan and entrenched in their political beliefs than in the past two decades.
“It’s not just about trustworthiness in the sense of character, it’s more like ‘Who do you trust with the future of the country?’ ” Nordlinger said. “They need to concentrate on telling voters why a vote for them is a vote that’s a good investment in the future.”
Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based Republican political consultant who worked for the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Steve Forbes, said both Trump and Clinton should be “spending a lot of money on positive campaigning,” touting their own credentials instead of knocking their opponent.
“Negative campaigning is a useless strategy on both parts because both candidates’ negative poll numbers are as high as they’ve ever been in a presidential race,” Dawidziak said. “You probably can’t drive them any higher than they are today.”
Trump and Clinton campaign surrogates insist there’s ample time for each candidate to change public opinion.
Nassau Democratic Committee chairman Jay Jacobs, a longtime Clinton fundraiser, said he hopes Clinton has more opportunities to field questions from voters at roundtables and town halls because that is when she’s best able to connect with voters and show her “personal warmth.”
“She has to do more one-on-one interviews,” Jacobs said. “I’d like to see her do a Howard Stern interview so more people can see what she’s really like.”
Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, a Trump campaign surrogate, dismissed the polls as “fake numbers” that do not accurately depict Trump’s level of support.
“What Donald Trump needs to continue to do is talk about his economic plan . . . those are the numbers voters really care about,” LaValle said.
A host of polls show a record number of voters believe Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are untrustworthy.
- USA Today/Suffolk University
Trump - 61%
Clinton- 59 %
Poll released: Sept. 1
- Washington Post/ABC News
Clinton- 59 %
Poll released: Aug. 9
- Siena College (*only New York voters)
Poll released: Aug. 15