Hillary Clinton’s biggest vulnerability is undeniably her perceived untrustworthiness among voters. But Bernie Sanders won’t talk about it.
Long before she had even announced her candidacy, Republicans had all but attempted to tar and feather Clinton over issues ranging from Benghazi to her email practices to whether or not she let her top aide take too much paid vacation. The smear campaign has worked, as Clinton’s favorability numbers plummeted and the road to her previously assumed coronation has proven rocky. However, Clinton’s current opponent, Bernie Sanders, refuses to pursue this line of attack.
I’d be tempted to say this is because primary opponents aim duke it out based on issues important to their voting base rather than personal attributes, but the Republican contest has proven that entirely false. That race has become a sophomoric school yard rumble where the word “liar” has been used more frequently than “taxes.”
This past weekend, during a debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders sharpened his attacks to a new level and repeatedly – and angrily – insisted Clinton let him finish speaking. Despite the obviously increased level of animosity, Sanders never crossed into attacking Clinton’s character. In fact, Sander’s most memorable line of the campaign so far has been declaring that the public was tired of hearing about her “damn emails.”
While a high-minded campaign around important issues might be refreshing to voters, Sanders is arguably costing himself votes by steering clear of what has been an incredibly effective attack on Clinton. Polls show that when voters are asked if they trust each candidate, Sanders scores nearly 20 points higher than Clinton. Most pollsters would identify that as a prime talking point to be exploited and produce positive gains for his campaign. Yet still, Sanders won’t do it.
This hesitancy to attack Clinton on a personal level has been a godsend for her this spring.
Despite Sanders’ victories in a handful of primaries so far this year, Clinton is still an odds-on favorite to secure the nomination in the summer. Despite the heated rhetoric, there won’t be any television ads this fall featuring fellow Democrats questioning whether she can be trusted.
By contrast think about what the Republicans will have to face. It doesn’t matter who emerges from the Republican field, they have all said – and had said about them – incredibly nasty things about each others personalities, character, and even looks. Why does Clinton need to run an ad calling Marco Rubio unprepared to lead when she can show Chris Christie saying it. Why does she need to call Donald Trump a loose cannon when Jeb Bush and every other Republican has, too.
The reality-tv-like nature of the Republican primary has spawned record levels of voter turnout and if this trend continues into the fall, Clinton is going to need Democrats to be equally as inspired to make it to their polling locations in support of her. She has already seen lackluster enthusiasm levels and nothing would make that uphill climb steeper than to have attacks of untrustworthiness coming from within her own party.
After the Democratic convention in July, Clinton will have a whole host of things to thank Sanders for. For one, he has made her a better candidate, forcing her to focus on issues that are important to the Democratic base that she may not have otherwise. But beyond that, she should thank him for not further stoking the flames behind the most damaging question voters have about Secretary Clinton: Can she be trusted?