Skip to Content

Why Donald Trump’s Personal Attacks Against Hillary Clinton Could Backfire

Donald Trump is going intensely personal in his opening salvo against Hillary Clinton — but there’s reason to believe the attack will backfire.

The presumptive Republican nominee on Saturday laced into his general election rival over her husband’s past infidelities, calling her “an unbelievably nasty, mean enabler, and what she did to a lot of those women is disgraceful.” In a Monday morning interview on CNN, Trump defended the criticism as retribution for Clinton “playing the woman’s card to the hilt” and indicated that the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment in the House remains relevant today.

“She can’t talk about me because nobody respects women more than Donald Trump,” Trump told CNN. “I will be better for women, by a big factor, than Hillary Clinton, who frankly, I don’t even think will be good to women.”

So far, most female voters disagree. A CNN/ORC poll last week found Clinton leading Trump 61-35 among women — a gap significantly wider than their 56-44 preference for President Obama over Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, which Gallup found to be the largest since it began to take that measure in 1952.

If Trump aims to improve his standing among women, some other polling history suggests attacking Clinton for her husband’s misdeeds is misguided. Gallup recorded what remains its highest-ever approval rating for Hillary Clinton in the immediate wake of her husband’s impeachment, with her favorability topping 67% in December 1998. The marks suggested that the then-First Lady, frequently a polarizing force during her husband’s administration, had suddenly become a sympathetic figure — and that the public perceived her as a victim, rather than an enabler, of her husband’s behavior.

Support for Clinton rivaled but never surpassed that mark four years ago during the closing months of her term as Secretary of State. Since then, however, her numbers have tumbled precipitously, with a mere 39% now viewing her favorably while 55% disapprove. Indeed, only Trump’s unpopularity outstrips Clinton’s, setting up what promises to be an ugly, attritional general election campaign between the two most disliked nominees in modern history.

By focusing on one of the rare historical moments that a supermajority of Americans actually liked Hillary Clinton, Trump looks primed to shoot himself in the foot.