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Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton: The candidate who 'stinks less' will win

Donald Trump swept last week's primaries with commanding margins, looking for the first time like a solid front-runner rather than a plurality favorite. With his opponents' room for strategic maneuvering dwindling rapidly—rendering tomorrow's Indiana primary a make-or-break win for Cruz—Trump must turn his attention to the general election.

Trump's primary performance has been remarkable. He has leveraged his reputation, his celebrity, and the sheer force of his personality to convince more than ten million Americans that he would be a great president. By June, that number will likely fall between twelve and thirteen million. Every poll of Trump's supporters suggests that their enthusiasm is real and their commitment unwavering.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

In each of the past three presidential elections, however, the losing candidate has received over fifty-nine million votes; the 2016 winner will need at least sixty million, likely many more than that.

To win in November using only his primary strategy, Trump will thus have to retain all of his supporters (which seems likely), and add four times as many new voters who appreciate his innate greatness, but did not participate in a Republican primary (which seems unlikely).

"If Trump wins solely on the strength of his greatness...he will become the first president since George Washington to have done so."

If Trump wins solely on the strength of his greatness—by convincing sixty-to-seventy million adoring Americans of his unique qualifications—he will become the first president since George Washington to have done so. Every other president—certainly while running for a first term—has had to bring in two other blocs of voters: Those who sigh "he was far from my first choice, but he's convinced me that he'll be okay," and those who gag "both candidates stink, but he stinks less."

Historically, winning candidates have gained large blocs of "Sigh-OK" voters while consolidating party support, and large blocs of "Stinks-Less" voters when undecideds, independents, and disaffected members of the other party begin to focus on their unhappy choices. Most polls indicate that a Clinton/Trump race will generate record numbers of Stinks-Less voters. Most polls also suggest that Hillary Clinton is winning those Stinks-Less voters decisively.

Clinton also plays well among Sigh-OK voters.

As a singularly unloved candidate, Clinton has known from the outset that her only path to the presidency involved convincing voters whose passions lie elsewhere of her acceptability. Her long record in the public eye, and her willingness to shift positions with the political winds, has given almost everyone looking for a straw to clutch some reason to hope that their favorite Hillary persona is the one that would emerge to govern.

Trump, on the other hand, has given Sigh-OK voters very little reassurance. For months, we have argued that Trump needs to provide personnel announcements and policy details capable of convincing skeptical Republicans that he plans to govern as a Republican. Newt Gingrich, one of Trump's biggest boosters, has made numerous public calls for him to begin a series of substantive speeches.

So far, Trump has made two serious scripted presentations, both on foreign policy: One to AIPAC in March, and one last week at the Center for National Interest. While those speeches represent a start, Trump needs to provide far more guidance to those asking: "Why should those who question your innate greatness nevertheless conclude that you will be an acceptable President?"

We have never been bashful about our own preferences. We continue to believe that Cruz's passion and moral clarity, his fidelity to the nation's constitutional underpinnings, and his views on national security, foreign affairs, and economic growth would make him an excellent president; our skepticism about Trump's performance in each of these areas lead us to doubt his potential for such excellence.

We have also been harshly critical of the unfocused Nevertrump movement, believing that you can't beat something with nothing, and that the proper competition for Trump is a superior candidate, not a complicated voting strategy.

And our recognition that Clinton seeks to continue the dreadful progressivism that has led President Obama to damage America's global standing, hamstring the economy, and shatter the nation's social fabric—while Trump seeks to move in some very different directions—lead us to a strong preference for Trump over Clinton.

Finally, we have been eager to give Trump a respectful hearing because we value the opinion of the many voters who have flocked to him—but we need much greater detail to know precisely what agenda they are asking us to support.

As things currently stand, should we find ourselves facing a Trump/Clinton race, we will support Trump as Stinks-Less voters. We are deeply unhappy in that role. We would much rather support Trump, if not as enthusiastic optimists, then at least as Sigh-OK voters, convinced that he has earned our support despite being far from our top choice.

In that, we are not alone. Large parts of the Republican Party, not to mention independents and disaffected Democrats, will pull the lever for Trump to keep Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office. We would be far happier if we knew what we were voting for rather than simply what we were voting against.

To win in November, Trump will have to cultivate the Sigh-OK voters that many of us are willing to become—and convince the Stinks-Less voters that he does, indeed, stink less than Hillary Clinton.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D., and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.

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