Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton raced to the center—or “pivoted” in the proper political vernacular—during their speeches on Tuesday night at the close of the primary season. But both made overt appeals to the disaffected supporters of their rivals’ vanquished opponents.
“To all of those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms,” Trump said during his unusually-scripted remarks from his golf club in Westchester, New York. Clinton was more subtle, but only a bit. Acknowledging the “hard-fought, deeply-felt” primary campaign, she sought support not only from those who voted for Sanders but also from people who backed “one of the Republicans.”
“The election is not,” she said later in the speech, “about the same old fights between Democrats and Republicans. This election is different. It really is about who we are as a nation. It’s about millions of Americans coming together to say: We are better than this. We won’t let this happen in America.
“And if you agree,” Clinton continued, “whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, or independent, I hope you’ll join us.”
Reaching across party lines is a traditional move at the start of the general election. Candidates no longer have to worry (as much) about alienating partisans in their own party once they’ve secured the nomination, and though voters in the political middle have seemingly been ignored as parties increasingly cater to their bases, they can still play an important role in swing states. In 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign touted the support of “Republicans for Obama,” and after the contentious Clinton-Obama primary eight years ago, John McCain aggressively sought to woo so-called P.U.M.A. (for Party Unity My Ass) Clinton supporters. The most prominent of these was Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a Clinton fund-raiser who very publicly defected to McCain in 2008 before supporting Jon Huntsman in 2012.
Neither of those efforts appeared to have a major effect on the outcome, particularly once McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate helped Obama consolidate Democratic support. Yet the divisiveness of the 2016 campaign and the historic unpopularity of the two major-party nominees gives both Clinton and Trump a bigger opportunity than in past recent elections. Polls have shown that many Sanders supporters have a negative image of Clinton, and the tightness in general-election surveys is in large part due to their reluctance to support her. Trump has an even lower favorability rating than Clinton, and while rank-and-file Republicans quickly coalesced around him, after he clinched the nomination, his targeting of a Mexican American judge in recent weeks is threatening to split the party anew.
The Clinton campaign has been highlighting Republican angst with—and outright defections from—Trump for the last several weeks. Without much fanfare, it also started buying digital ads directing people to a website it registered last month, republicansagainsttrump.org. (Politico spotted the website on Tuesday night.) The acronym alone is priceless and perhaps a subtle homage to the infamous subterfuge tactics of Richard Nixon. The website encourages Republicans to take the following pledge, in exchange for a free Republicans Against Trump sticker:
Donald Trump is not qualified to be president. He does not represent my beliefs as a Republican and, more importantly, my values as an American. He does not speak for me and I will not vote for him.
A Clinton campaign aide would not say how many people had taken the pledge and said a more public outreach effort to disaffected Republicans would be forthcoming. Trump, meanwhile, has been trying to stoke the anger of Sanders supporters in his speeches for weeks. He plans to give a speech on Monday devoted to “all of the things that have happened with the Clintons”—a move that could serve the dual purpose of rallying conservatives to his side while appealing to the Clinton fatigue of liberals and independents who got behind Sanders as an alternative.
Neither Clinton nor Trump are making their pitches along the expected ideological lines, where a Republican would try to appeal to a moderate Democrat concerned about a nominee’s lurch to the left, and vice versa.Trump is actually going after the most liberal voters in the Democratic ranks by aligning himself with Sanders’s opposition to trade deals. “By the way,” he said on Tuesday night, “the terrible trade deals that Bernie was so vehemently against—and he's right on that—will be taken care of far better than anyone ever thought possible.”
Clinton’s pitch is hardly based on policy at all. She is appealing to Republicans of all stripes turned off by Trump’s temperament and bigotry. But Clinton can realistically only hope to earn the support of more centrist Republicans, or perhaps those who prioritize foreign-policy experience over domestic and social policy. Many of the Republicans in the Never Trump camp are conservatives who have said they would never vote for either candidate. For Clinton, however, a would-be Trump voter who either stays home or votes for a third-party candidate is nearly as helpful. That’s perhaps one reason why the website her campaign launched is “Republicans Against Trump” and not “Republicans for Clinton.” In this polarized environment, it’s easier to get someone to turn against your opponent than in favor of you.
Though she has clinched the Democratic nomination, Clinton may be waiting to make a more aggressive push for Republican votes until after Sanders formally drops out of the race. Her first task will be unifying her own party to prevent Sanders voters from sitting out the general election or defecting to Trump. Yet for both candidates, the next few weeks are a crucial time. For Never Trump Republicans and Bernie-or-Bust Democrats (and liberal independents), the bitterness of their primary loss is at its peak, and they may never be more open to switching sides than they are now.