In the end, it was the voters of Indiana last week who effectively gave the country the outcome that had loomed for months. The 2016 election will likely put Hillary Clinton, who is disliked by a majority of voters, against Donald Trump, disliked by another and more intense majority of voters.
If the rise of Trump has no obvious precedent, neither does an election like this. Clinton, whose buoyant favorable ratings in the State Department convinced some Democrats that she could win easily, is now viewed as unfavorably as George W. Bush was in his close 2004 reelection bid. Trump is even less liked, with negative ratings among nonwhite voters not seen since the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater.
“In the history of polling, we’ve basically never had a candidate viewed negatively by half of the electorate,” wrote Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, in a widely shared note that asked someone, anyone, to mount a third-party run. “There are dumpster fires in my town more popular than these two ‘leaders.’ ”
You wouldn’t know it from talking to each candidates’ supporters, who see only one reality — they hate the other choice — and who seem oblivious that much of the nation is defining this election by watching with dismay and deciding whether to bother to participate.
“Everybody likes her,” said Pamela Hatwood, 51, a nurse on disability who was fanning herself with an extra Clinton sign in a sweltering gym in Indianapolis last week — one of many supporters who shrugged off questions about whether Clinton’s appeal was too narrow.
“I think she’s such a strong woman that people get afraid,” said Stephen Yanusheskhy, 40, a health-insurance salesman. “I’m not worried about the polls. They’re good one week; they’re bad the next week. I feel like they poll the people they want to get a certain result. But once she actually gets the nomination, people will come out in droves.
Trump is a big motivator for these voters. Clinton’s crowd was never as rapt as when she asked how embarrassing it was to see violence break out at Trump rallies.
“You see it on TV, and you assume it’s some place far away, don’t you?” she said. “You hear this hateful talk about women and you want to say: Enough, enough! That’s not who we are.”
A few hours later, up the highway in Fort Wayne, thousands of voters decided differently. Yes, this was who they were: They were Trump voters. And none of them could look around the room, an arena packed as if a top-40 band was playing it, and imagine that Trump was unpopular. Corey Fuller, 41, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, one of the optimists who helped him win Indiana.
“When he first announced, I kind of rolled my eyes, too,” Fuller admitted about Trump. “But I got it soon enough. I don’t worry about him losing, but I worry about the establishment trying to steal it from him, and that’s sad. I joined the Republican Party this year for this.”
From the stage, Trump meandered his way toward a discussion of why he could win. He has spoken more about poll numbers, in his set speeches, than any candidate in the same position. He tends to focus on the numbers that show him competitive — and to ignore completely the ones that show him to be the least-popular candidate to win a party nomination.
“I won every debate,” Trump said. “I started off at 4 [percent], and they all said: ‘Well, that is his plateau. He won’t go higher.’ ” Trump’s imitation of a pundit was stuffy and nasal, like some forgotten French king ordering a fresh pillow. “The next week, I went to 8. Then I went to 12. Then I went to 18. Then I went to 20. And every week, these idiots said, ‘That is his plateau!’ Then I went to 68!”
For many of those listening to him that day, the idea of Trump losing an election was preposterous. Republicans who have nervously studied the party’s future worry that Trump is too alienating to women and nonwhite voters to even get close to victory. Another untested theory is that his support can be so robust from white voters — who have steadily trended Republican — that he can capitalize on Clinton’s unfavorable numbers and win.
The last open election for the White House felt bitter at times. It was not half as bitter as this. In exit polls from November 2008, just 24 percent of voters said they would be “scared” if Barack Obama won the election; just 28 percent said the same of his rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Both candidates were viewed favorably. When asked how they would have voted had Clinton won the Democratic nomination, they said they would have picked her, by 11 points.
Clinton’s strategy assumes that she has lost voters’ esteem since then. Even before the unexpectedly stiff challenge of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who, supporters point out, polls better than she — the former secretary of state was building a campaign that could grind out majorities in swing states and maximize the growing nonwhite vote.
Eight years ago, both she and Obama campaigned on “clean coal.” This year, famously, she has said that “we’ve got to move away from coal” and put “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” as the economy gets greener. (Sanders has roughly the same position but has not received the same backlash.)
Eight years ago, she won Indiana in the primary; Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to carry it in the general election.
Indiana ended the campaign of Trump’s last serious rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, another candidate who was navigating soaring unfavorable ratings. In his final days, Cruz regularly made four or five campaign stops, out-hustling every other candidate, silently aware that his poll numbers were not recovering.
At Cruz’s rallies, his supporters insisted that his unfavorable ratings, past 50 percent, were a result of the candidate’s media coverage.
“You can actually poll somebody and get the result that you want,” said Joe Stack, 37, who had backed Cruz since his 2012 campaign for Senate and drove an hour to see him in La Porte. “Maybe in the Hillary Clinton camp, he’s unpopular. Maybe among some of these other Republicans like John Boehner — they’re not going to like him, because he’s a principled guy. The perception is that he’s unpopular, but people perceive what they’re told in the media.”
At a larger rally in Fort Wayne, Mary Lynn Hamrick, 46, showed up in a shirt that the tea party group FreedomWorks had given her. It was ridiculous, she said, that Cruz was portrayed as an extremist. The current president had earned that status, because a permanent class of agitators, the class that produced him, was determined not to allow the country to enjoy peace.
“Look at what went on at the Trump rallies just this week. They were the socialists, the communists, NARAL, Occupy Wall Street. Those people are going to exist, and a lot of them are paid protesters.”
The irony, which Hamrick and Cruz would learn one day later, was that the “socialists” would cross the finish line and Cruz would not. Sanders won Indiana, helped in many primaries by the ability of independent voters to cross into the Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton won Democratic votes by 6 points; Sanders won independents by 44 points.
The night he won Indiana, Sanders rallied in Louisville, the biggest city in a state that had given Clinton one of her biggest 2008 primary landslides. The Sanders rally took up the larger portion of a park on the Ohio River, with Indiana in the distance, and he got applause for a carbon tax, a tax on stock transactions and a condemnation of the media that had called his candidacy fringe.
“The establishment, the big-money interests, corporate media and all the rest want you to believe that change is not possible,” Sanders said.
Within 24 hours, with both Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich out, the socialist from Vermont was the only candidate for president not disliked by a majority of voters.