The revulsion election: Who you hate less

The 2016 presidential election is shaping up as a six-month long car wreck, a campaign of nastiness and violence that people say they hate but from which they cannot look away.

Never before in American history have the two major party nominees been so widely reviled. In the latest NBC News tracking poll out on Tuesday, just 17 percent of voters say they admire Hillary Clinton. That would be political death in any normal year. But Donald Trump's numbers are even worse. Only 10 percent of voters say they admire the New York–based brand manager and reality TV star.

It gets worse from there.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton
John Sommers II | Reuters; Getty Images

Clinton and Trump are either disliked or even hated by six in 10 Americans. Take a breath and let that sink in. More than half the country basically despises their two choices for the next president. No wonder people such as Bill Kristol continue to agitate for a third-party alternative such as Mitt Romney or Nebraska GOP Senator Ben Sasse while Bernie Sanders refuses to leave the Democratic race.

The NBC numbers just serve to confirm what other polls have found in recent days. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this week showed that 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Clinton while 58 percent have an unfavorable view of Trump. Both are record-high unfavorables for presidential candidates heading into a general election. And Trump's number represents a 12 percent improvement as he has locked down the GOP nomination and started to bring the #NeverTrump movement into the fold.

The latest ABC/Washington Post poll put Clinton at 53 percent unfavorable and Trump at 60 percent. The only comparable rating for a nominee was George H.W. Bush in 1992 at 53 percent. He went on to lose to Bill Clinton who never had an unfavorable rating above 50 percent during the campaign.

So how did we get to this dismal, depressing place?

With Trump, the numbers are fairly easy to explain. He is a bombastic demagogue who has alienated Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, Asian-Americans and nonwhite women. Trump's attacks on "PC culture" are thrilling to many angry white voters, but his overall boorishness, thin-skinned narcissism and aversion to any kind of policy consistency are a big turn-off to much of the country.

Hillary Clinton
Welcome to the general election: Where did Hillary's cakewalk go?

Clinton's descent into ignominy is somewhat harder to explain. Five years ago, according to Gallup, Clinton while serving as President Obama's Secretary of State had a favorable rating of 66 percent and an unfavorable rating of 31 percent. The number was just one point off her all-time high of 67 percent achieved during the impeachment proceedings against her husband in 1998 (Americans apparently deeply sympathize with the aggrieved spouse).

While Secretary of State, Clinton emerged as a cool internet meme as "Texts From Hillary," featuring the politician in shades on a government plane looking at her phone, became a global phenomena. Clinton at the time was the cool-under-pressure diplomat who turned a crushing loss in the 2008 primary into a strong stint serving under the man who beat her.

And then the Benghazi attack happened in Libya in September of 2012 and Clinton's numbers began a downward trend that continues to this day. From the outset, the administration's handling of Benghazi angered many Americans. First it was a spontaneous event sparked by an internet video. But in fact it turned out to be a coordinated, planned attack.

Some observers point to Clinton hatred as pure misogyny, and surely there is a bit of that. But while a GOP House Committee found no wrongdoing by the Obama administration on Benghazi, a narrative began to take hold on the right that Clinton was a liar with the blood of Americans on her hands. That is still the biggest attack leveled against Clinton on Twitter even by Republicans who might despise Trump but hate Clinton even more.

There are other elements to Clinton's crash. She has been relentlessly attacked on the left by Bernie Sanders, who portrays her as a shill for Wall Street and other corporate interests. Stories continue to pop up on the seamy operations of the Clinton Foundation. And Trump is now dredging up the scandals of the 1990s to slime Clinton over the actions — both alleged and documented — of her husband.

And the attacks go both ways. Clinton surrogates on Tuesday are all over key swing states attempting to destroy the key pillar of Trump's support, his record as a businessman.

Clinton may enjoy an uptick in popularity as Democrats return to the fold around the time of the convention. Trump may get a convention bump as well. But both will go into November with sky-high negative ratings. And the election will be decided not by Americans deciding who they want as president but by which candidate they hate less.

— Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.