Should Hillary Clinton Try to Woo the Support of ‘Responsible Republicans’?

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally, June 1, 2016, in Newark, New Jersey.
The GOP stampede to Trump didn't leave a lot of potential swing voters behind.Photo: DOMINICK REUTER/This content is subject to copyright.

The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman has a well-wrought column today on how Hillary Clinton can appeal to “responsible Republicans” unhappy with Donald Trump’s ignorance and scary instincts on international affairs in a big foreign-policy speech she is scheduled to deliver Thursday. His specific advice is excellent and apparently scratches an itch the Clinton campaign is itself feeling. There’s only one problem, which Paul himself notes:

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One question is how many of those voters there actually are — thoughtful, serious national-security-minded conservatives whose feelings on that subject will overwhelm whatever they believe on other issues.

Waldman goes on to assume that Clinton supposes the answer to that question is positive, given the signals emanating from her campaign. If so, you have to wonder why that is the case. 

The rapid and overwhelming consolidation of the Republican rank and file behind Trump is the first big story of the general-election campaign to come, and the most obvious reason for his suddenly strong standing against Clinton in early general-election trial heats. Unlike other “noises” from such polls, this isn’t a finding anyone should necessarily dismiss as “too early.” After all, self-identified Republicans are the voters most likely to have paid close attention to Trump and what he does and does not stand for during the primary season. Yet for all the high-profile (if quickly shrinking) elite Republican resistance to Trump, actual voters seem to be emphatically over all that. 

The degree of rank-and-file consolidation behind Trump was nicely dramatized today by Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight, who compares Trump’s level of support (excluding third-party candidates) among self-identified Republicans to that of other non-incumbent GOP candidates a month after they secured the nomination. Trump’s at 85-7 against Hillary Clinton. That’s slightly better than George W. Bush in 2000 (83-7), and significantly better than Poppy Bush in 1988 (81-13) or Bob Dole in 1996 (79-18). But here’s the shocker: Trump’s doing better initially among Republicans than St. Ronald Reagan in 1980 (74-14)! The only nominee with higher early GOP support than Trump is Mitt Romney (87-6), who also benefited from the hyperpolarized atmosphere of the Obama presidency. 

Maybe the Clinton campaign has unpublished evidence that she can reopen the divisions of the competitive Republican primaries via her own efforts. If not, she might want to avoid any conspicuous “move to the center” toward a party united in antipathy toward her and her party, particularly since any overt maneuvering could reinforce doubts about her honesty and constancy that are probably her biggest problem.