Most Americans express dismay at their choices in the 2016 presidential election, with a tighter contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reflecting damage to Clinton from her email controversy – but with continued weak ratings for Trump across a range of key measures.
In apparent fallout from the email issue that returned to the fore last week, 72 percent in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll see Clinton as “too willing to bend the rules.” But 56 percent see Trump as biased against women and minorities, and six in 10 call him unqualified for office.
One result: On the eve of the Republican and Democratic conventions, a remarkable 58 percent describe themselves as dissatisfied with a choice between the presumptive nominees.
Preferences have narrowed from a 12-point Clinton advantage among registered voters in mid-June –- after a series of campaign missteps by Trump -– to a non-significant 4-point gap now. That follows FBI Director James Comey’s characterization of Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state as “extremely careless,” albeit not warranting criminal charges.
Winnowing to likely voters, the race goes to a 7-point edge for Clinton -– an unusual result, in that likely voters typically tilt more Republican. But it’s an unusual contest.
The unpopularity of both candidates is striking. Sixty-four percent of Americans in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, see Trump unfavorably, off last month’s 70 percent but still a highly troublesome level. Yet 54 percent also see Clinton unfavorably, a point from her high last month. They remain the two most unpopular likely major-party nominees in ABC/Post polling back to 1984.
There’s been a 5-point rise in the number who see Clinton “strongly” unfavorably, to 44 percent, the most in available data back 13 years. Again, though, more say the same about Trump – 52 percent strongly unfavorable (vs. 56 percent in June). Just 31 percent see him favorably overall; it’s 42 percent for Clinton.
In another measure of the candidates’ weaknesses, fewer than four in 10 registered voters who pick Trump over Clinton say they mainly support him; most, 57 percent, instead say they mainly oppose Clinton. It’s barely better for Clinton: Just 44 percent of her supporters mainly favor her, while 54 percent mainly oppose Trump. This lack of affirmative support could lend volatility to the contest ahead.
While Clinton and Trump’s unpopularity have the potential to boost third-party candidates, interest in the current options is fairly muted. Just 14 percent of registered voters say there’s a third-party candidate they’re seriously considering, and just 3 and 2 percent, respectively, independently mention Libertarian Gary Johnson or Jill Stein of the Green Party.
When their names are offered, 8 percent of registered voters pick Johnson, 5 percent Stein, with no change in the gap between Clinton and Trump.
Obama and 'Wrong Track'
Standing above this fray is Barack Obama: Regardless of changes in Clinton/Trump preferences, the president’s rating is steady, with 56 percent of Americans approving of his job performance overall –- identical to last month at its highest since early in his presidency.
That result is important for Clinton; 83 percent of his approvers also back her, suggesting he can be of help to her on the campaign trail. Notably, his approval is exactly double George W. Bush’s at this time in 2008, when he was seen as a drag on the GOP candidate, John McCain.
Obama’s relatively strong approval rating may seem counterintuitive, since Americans also, by a wide 68-28 percent, say the country is headed pretty seriously on the wrong track -– up by 8 percentage points since January. Obama’s approval is far higher, naturally, among those who say the country is headed in the right direction. But the “wrong track” assessment also may include conditions for which many don’t hold him accountable – e.g., race relations and terrorism.
Obama also simply may benefit from comparison to Clinton and Trump. Indeed, his approval rating is up especially sharply – by 14 points since March – among the one in four Americans who hold unfavorable views of both candidates. (Those are, in particular, young adults, college-educated white men and supporters of other contenders for the nominations.)
In any case, along with Obama approval, the “right direction/wrong track” measure bears watching. Among registered voters who say the country’s headed in the right direction, Clinton leads Trump by a vast 86-8 percent. Among the more than two-thirds who say it’s on the wrong track, by contrast, Trump has a 25-point advantage, 57-32 percent.
With the election four months away, fundamental assessments of the candidates’ suitability are at least as important as current vote preferences, and here Clinton has some persistent advantages. Most notably, 59 percent of Americans see her as qualified to serve as president, vs. just 37 percent who say the same about Trump. (It’s similar among registered voters, 56 vs. 39 percent, respectively.) That puts Trump’s qualifications rating in line with those of Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle and Ross Perot in years past.
Clinton, moreover, leads Trump by 13 points both on empathy – who “better understands the problems of people like you” – and on who “better represents your own personal values,” as well as by 19 points on who has the better judgment. And she leads him by a much wider margin, 31 points, on who has the better personality and temperament to serve effectively, a result that’s essentially unchanged in the past two months.
There are two other attributes on which Clinton and Trump are rated evenly – honesty and trustworthiness and who would “do more to bring needed change to Washington.” But on none of the six attributes tested does Trump have a meaningful advantage. (Painfully, 18 percent volunteer that they see neither Trump nor Clinton as honest and trustworthy, vs. 5-11 percent in ABC/Post polls in the presidential races in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.)
There are some differences among registered voters – though there’s still ample time to register. In this group Trump advances to an 11-point lead on being better able to bring needed change, and Clinton’s lead on values and empathy shrinks to a non-significant 6 points. She retains leads on judgment (+13 points) and personality/temperament (+26 points).
Clinton also may get some help – or at least no hurt – from her insider status, compared with Trump’s positioning as a political outsider. Among all adults, someone with experience in how the political system works takes precedence over an outsider by 55-41 percent. Still, that’s narrowed from 62-34 percent in March, and it shrinks to a 6-point gap among registered voters.
Clinton may look more at risk from her “bend the rules” reputation (72 percent) than Trump by his perceived bias against women and minorities (expressed by 56 percent). But when asked which of these is the bigger concern, Americans divide – 48 percent cite bias by Trump, 43 percent, rule-bending by Clinton. Among registered voters, this goes to an even split.
Trust on issues tells a similar story as results on attributes, with some clear advantages for Clinton, while not so for Trump.
They’re rated essentially evenly among all adults on two especially key issues, trust to handle the economy and terrorism, as well as trust to handle taxes. Clinton, though, has double-digit leads on four others – handling race relations, an international crisis, immigration and, by a lesser margin, helping the middle class.
Narrowing to currently registered voters, she keeps double-digit leads on handling race relations, an international crisis and immigration, and again doesn’t trail by a significant margin on any of these.
There’s no indication in this poll, conducted Monday through Thursday, that either candidate’s vice presidential selection will be highly influential. Just 12 percent of Americans say either V.P. choice will be “extremely important” in their decision.
More, though – about a quarter – say it could be extremely or very important, and given the top candidates’ own unpopularity, their running mates potentially could matter. Trump, for example, is supported by 82 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of evangelical white Christians and 70 percent of conservatives in this poll – groups among which he may hope to be boosted by his selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. There is room to improve: Mitt Romney, for example, won 93 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of conservatives in 2012.
The main changes in overall vote preference from last month include weaker results for Clinton among college-educated white women, white Catholics and “somewhat” conservatives, all groups to watch in the campaign ahead.
College-educated white women have gone from a 22-point preference for Clinton last month to essentially an even split now, by far the closest margin in this group in ABC/Post polling this election cycle.
Overall, Trump now leads Clinton by 15 points among white registered voters, while trailing her by a vast 52 points among nonwhites. She’s backed by 89 percent of blacks and 74 percent of Hispanics (the latter reflects combined June/July results for adequate sample sizes).
Another group to show recent movement is white Catholics. After being far better for Trump in May, they moved to essentially an even split last month, and now are back to +19 for Trump. That’s the same margin by which Romney won this group four years ago.
“Somewhat” conservatives, for their part, favor Trump by 66-24 percent in this poll; that was 58-34 percent last month, a 24-point margin widening to 42 points.
Coalescence and Youth
Also of keen interest is the extent to which Republicans and Republican-leaning independents coalesce behind Trump and their Democratic opposites do the same for Clinton. That now seems to be occurring in equal measure.
Specifically, among leaned Republicans who preferred someone other than Trump for the nomination, 76 percent support him vs. Clinton, vs. 69 percent last month. And among leaned Democrats who preferred Bernie Sanders, 79 percent back Clinton over Trump.
One important element of Sanders’ support was young registered voters, and Clinton is holding her own in this group, 56-32 percent over Trump among those under 30. They’d surprisingly split evenly between Clinton and Trump in May.
Among other groups, Trump continues to do especially well among white men who don’t have a college degree, a 69-27 percent lead in this group. (While very wide, that’s not so remarkable; Romney won them by 64-33 percent in 2012.)
Trump has a lead of 60-33 among non-college whites overall, again about the same as Romney’s advantage in this group in 2012. Clinton, for her part, is competitive among white registered voters who have a college degree, 43-42 percent, Trump-Clinton – a group Romney won by 14 points.
That’s a reason Clinton does better somewhat among likely voters; college-educated adults are likelier to vote.
A notable element of this matchup is the extent to which it’s fluctuated over time – a 9-point lead for Clinton among registered voters in March, +2 Trump in May, +12 Clinton in June, +4 Clinton now. That’s reflected the course of the campaign: better for Clinton as the Republicans duked it out; better for Trump when he emerged as the likely nominee; better for Clinton when Trump stumbled; better for Trump as the email controversy re-emerged.
The conclusion is that campaigns matter –- and that may especially be so this year, given the contours of a contest between the two largely uninspiring candidates the major parties are poised to nominate.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone July 11-14, 2016, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including 816 registered voters. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including the design effect, for the full sample, and 4 points for registered voters. Partisan divisions are 33-23-35 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents, in the full sample, 33-27-33 among registered voters.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y. See details on the survey’s methodology here.