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Why Hillary Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ remark can only help her

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 8, 2016. A war of words over Donald Trump's "deplorables" is intensifying as Republicans and Democrats fight to score political points. Credit: AP

Hillary Clinton set the news media and Donald Trump supporters on fire when said at a fundraiser that Trump's supporters sit in two baskets:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorable.’ Right?" she said on Sept. 9 in New York.

The audience laughed and applauded. Clinton continued, "They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, islamophobic — you name it.”

A presidential candidate vilifying millions of voters? What a huge gaffe!

News outlets from The Washington Post to Fox News pounced on Hillary's words, calling the comment a self-inflicted wound. And they followed it with analysis, saying Hillary was being grossly unfair saying Trump voters had racial biases. Even more analysis discussed that it's always a bad idea to attack voters, of any stripe.

But here's the thing: For a “September disaster” gaffe, this is one that can only benefit Clinton. I'm not saying this as someone who wants this to be good for Clinton. I'm not in the business of supporting candidates, ever. But like Clinton or not, a close analysis of this campaign should leave you with only one conclusion: She didn't hurt herself the way most in the news media think.

Let's rewind for a second and look at the worst part about how the media covered Clinton's comment: There was almost no coverage on whether the claim is true.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic has pointed out: polls have investigated this 'deplorable' idea long before Hillary's comment. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 60 percent of Trump supporters have a negative view of Islam. Seventy-six percent in a Texas Politics poll support banning Muslims from the United States. According to Reuters, nearly half of Republicans rated blacks as more violent and more criminal than whites.

The blanket word “deplorable” is Clinton’s, but it has to be acknowledged that there is at least some evidence that her claim that half of Trump’s supporters are racially or ethnically biased is true. But this is politics, and truth telling is not always a good idea. After all, what's the definition of a political gaffe? It's telling the truth when you shouldn't have let anyone hear you do it.

It's not the first time a presidential candidate has made such a sweeping claim about voter groups. Mitt Romney attacked the 47 percent of Americans, saying they just wanted a free handout from the government, and it was terrible for him. But there's a key difference: Mitt Romney was seen as going after the poor and the  working class with his comments. Hillary went after racists and xenophobes.

So if you’re saying to yourself,  "Well this will really hurt Hillary!" Then you have to ask yourself:  "Which voters did she isolate?"

Here's some speculation, but a safe one: Not one Trump supporter who was truly offended by what Clinton said about them was a gettable vote for Clinton anyway.  "I was considering Hillary, but not now!" If there's a Trump supporter saying that, that person is a unicorn.

Think instead about a place like the critical Philadelphia suburbs in the must-win swing state of Pennsylvania.

This week President Barack Obama was in Philadelphia helping drive up turnout for Clinton. A large chunk of the Philly suburbs might be willing to vote for Trump, but those voters just aren't sure. They're Republicans or independents, but they just don't like what Trump says. They don't like his insults. And they especially don't like what they see from his white nationalist supporters. You might say, they're queasy about getting into Trump's basket. And Clinton is simply trying to make it harder for them see themselves doing it.

How can we know this is true? Well, Trump knows it's true. It's his strategy. He's running on it.

Donald Trump's ceiling so far in this campaign has been about 43 percent. He's barely broken it. Obviously, that's not enough to win. So he's been staging some outreach to African-Americans and Latinos. But as has been widely reported, that outreach has less to do with getting minority voters and a lot more to do with making nervous white voters believe that Trump’s campaign isn’t racist. "It's O.K.," this 'minority outreach' says. "You can get in this basket without feeling....deplorable."

Then along comes Clinton saying half of Trump's supporters are deplorable. The media covers it as a gaffe. We love gaffes in this business. And then the debate follows: "Half?” “How could she say that?" "Just how racist are Trump's supporters?" "Is it half? Only 10 percent? 15 percent?"

Meanwhile, Trump's true deplorables -- the racists, the white nationalists -- they're flying their flags more proudly than ever. They're happy to get called out by Clinton, to be put on display for voters to see. When Trump running mate Mike Pence refused to call David Duke a certain word on CNN, the former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard was thrilled. What was the word? You guessed it: “Deplorable.”

Pence did say he doesn’t want David Duke’s support, but it was muddled. That's some message to send to Republicans who are already nervous about the company they keep in this election.

Coverage of Clinton's fainting spell and pneumonia diagnosis clouded some of the “deplorable” coverage. But Trump brought it back into the spotlight with this fiery speech attack:

"Nobody's heard anything like this,” he said Monday in Baltimore. “She called these patriotic men and women every vile name in the book. She called them racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic. She called half of our supporters a ‘basket of deplorables.’”

He was full of indignation and anger at the insult. And his campaign is using the gaffe to drive fundraising. That's fine. But Trump’s outrage only works if all or most of the Republicans he he needs agree with him. Right now, they probably don't. Remember, 43 percent of the projected vote is his highest figure. And that's this far into campaign season.

Even before Trump's attacks, Clinton had backtracked a little, saying, "O.K. I shouldn't have said ‘half.’" It wasn’t much of an apology. The rest of the statement doubled down on the basket and the deplorable people in it.

Overall, her comment was panned by pundits and journalists for attacking voters, for dividing the country. But it didn't divide the country, the country is already divided. Clinton has a lead in this race, albeit a narrowing one. If her comment divided anyone, it divided Trump from the very uneasy Republican and independent white voters he still needs to convince if he is really going to have a chance in November.

We can't know if this “gaffe” will work. But if that was an unintentional bit of honesty, it looks like a pretty savvy move for Hillary Clinton. And it helps guarantee that lots American voters will start thinking hard about this question: What basket are you in? And who is in that basket with you?

Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for “The Takeaway” from WNYC and Public Radio International. He delivered this essay on Wednesday’s program. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.


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