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Trump vs Clinton: Why this election could be the nastiest in history

Presidential candidates throughout history have called their opponents all kind of names: hermaphrodite, adulterer, bigamist, pimp, ugly, "pot-bellied mutton-headed cucumber" and — gasp! — a terrible dresser.

A giant effigy of Donald Trump during a protest on May Day in Los Angeles, May 1, 2016.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
A giant effigy of Donald Trump during a protest on May Day in Los Angeles, May 1, 2016.

And yet, it looks like this election could beat them all on the dirty, nasty, and vitriolic scales.

The first reason is obvious: Donald Trump. Most political pundits would have predicted instant death for a campaign where the candidate did everything from mock the physical appearance of his one female Republican opponent, to scoffing at the eating habits of the most dignified candidate still in the GOP race, to openly considering criminal punishment for women who get abortions.


Trump hasn't really softened his rhetoric and his tone remains just as sharp as ever even as he stands at the brink of officially clinching the GOP presidential nomination. There seems to be no question that the Trump nastiness will continue, since it's served him so well in the polls so far. The only question is who will be the primary target for his bombast as the general election drags on. As long as The Donald stays in the race, this election will make nastiness history.

The second major reason this election will remain toxic (and get worse) is the unusually high negative polls for both presumptive nominees — Trump and Hillary Clinton. Political experts have maintained for decades that any candidate with more than a 40 percent "negative view" poll number was dead in the water. As of the latest AP-GFK poll, a whopping 69 percent of voters have a negative view of Trump. And 55 percent of Americans surveyed in that poll had a negative opinion of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Those polls are a pure recipe for extreme nastiness. The only real reason for a campaign not to go super negative on an opponent is the chance that undecided voters will think it's all a little too mean. But with well over half the public harboring dislike for both candidates, it's unlikely there will be much blowback for a negative campaign.


Some experts believe Clinton will try to remain positive by making her campaign as much about uplifting issues for women as possible. But the Clinton camp will have to do the things that will help her in the polls, and there's almost nothing more the former Secretary of State can do to win more than the huge advantage she already holds among women against Trump.

Clinton's comments about Trump are already getting much more personal and they are starting to go along the lines of describing him as an apocalyptic mistake and highway to fascist tyranny. So she's just getting warmed up on Trump.


As for Trump, he's been relatively quiet about Clinton compared to his curiously enduring attacks on his basically vanquished GOP rivals. But when he has gone after the Clintons, he's been squarely aiming below the belt, like when he called Bill Clinton a sexual predator and Hillary his enabler, or when he focused on the amount of time Hillary Clinton spent in the bathroom during a break during a Democratic Party debate. Both of those attacks helped Trump in the polls. So, unless Trump's campaign truly is some kind of sham, don't expect him to delay resuming his attacks on Clinton for much longer.

Finally, consider the playing field when it comes to campaigning in America today. More people are now getting their news from social media than traditional news sources. And what really moves on Facebook, Twitter, and the other main sites is almost always nastier and louder than what we see in newspapers and TV. Longer form and more reasoned messages literally and figuratively don't fit on social media. And now these sites aren't just a necessary addition to a candidate's media campaign, they are the starting and ending point of them.

If you think talk radio is mean, you're really behind the times. The medium really is the message, and the message is nasty.

And, it's not limited to Trump vs. Clinton. In the event that either one is pushed off their ticket (say by some sort of convention chicanery or a federal indictment), it will still be a nasty fight.

Try to keep the small children away from the election coverage if you can in the coming months!


Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.