The general election has begun: Now it gets really negative

Trump smashes Cruz's last stand
Trump smashes Cruz's last stand

A six-month general election pitting Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton has just begun. By all conventional yardsticks, Clinton should keep the White House in Democratic hands.

The former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state holds a clear edge in polling. She led by 50 percent to 39 percent in last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, by an even wider 54 percent to 41 percent margin in a new CNN/ORC survey Wednesday.

For good or ill, Clinton and the policies she advocates have become familiar to the American electorate over the quarter century since her husband first ran successfully for the White House. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of six presidential elections since then, powered in part by their growing edge among nonwhite voters who continue to swell as a proportion of the electorate.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
Jim Bourg | Reuters; Melina Mara/The Washington Post | Getty Images

In a bombastic campaign in which he has promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and temporarily bar Muslims from entering the U.S.,Trump has severely alienated those voters — as well as women and college-educated whites. His rejection of free-trade deals and curbs on entitlement programs challenges the interests and ideological orthodoxy of the GOP's business-oriented financial base.

As a result, the Trump whirlwind has created a hub of intense "Never Trump" resistance within his party. The 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, has denounced him as a fraud; a top adviser to 2008 nominee John McCain, Mark Salter, declared Tuesday that he will support Clinton. Some prominent Republicans aim to generate a third party candidacy in the name of a more traditional brand of conservatism.

Yet Trump has repeatedly defied expectations in a campaign that, improbably, vanquished the son and brother of the last two Republican presidents as well as an array of leading governors and senators. And even some prominent Democratic strategists worry privately that the billionaire developer could do it again.

One asset he brings to the campaign — hidden so far by intraparty battles — is the tribal loyalty that has deepened in recent decades as the two parties have grown more polarized. Antipathy toward Democrats in general and Clinton in particular may remain a powerful binding agent holding an overwhelming majority of Republicans together.

A second is the passionate following he has developed among working class white voters who feel bypassed by trends in American culture and the economy. The appeal of his "Make America Great Again" slogan was built over decades of stagnation in incomes for average families, especially those with breadwinners lacking a college education. Though white voters have dwindled to just over 70 percent of the overall electorate, Trump strategists hope an energized turnout could help them flip key Rust Belt states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania away from the Democrats.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
Donald Trump has changed the rules of the game: Eric Cantor

A third Trump asset is Clinton's own poor public image. The battle scars she has accumulated have left large swaths of the electorate not trusting her. And while Trump's victory in Indiana on Tuesday night forced top rival Ted Cruz to abandon the race, Clinton lost there to her Democratic socialist challenger Bernie Sanders and faces weeks more of primary squabbling that can only harm her chances.

All this ensures a highly negative general election battle. This much is already clear: The principal campaign dynamic will feature each nominee attempting to maximize negative views of the other.

Here's what isn't yet clear: Whether Trump can manage to shock the political experts once again.