Heated debate over Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ rages on

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gets into a van as she leaves an apartment building Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Donald Trump appears determined to make Hillary Clinton’s claim that half of his supporters are racists and xenophobes a pivotal moment in the presidential race, as his campaign focuses its fire on those words rather than her health problems that have attracted much media attention since Sunday.

"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” Clinton said at a fundraiser Friday night. “Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic -- you name it."

She spoke sympathetically about the other half of Trump voters who feel the economy and the country have let them down.

The fundraiser was not the first time Clinton referred to a segment of Trump’s base as “deplorables,” but putting a specific percentage on it that would cover more than 20 million people if taken literally has ignited outrage.

Trump has declared it the biggest mistake of the campaign, devoting much of a speech before the National Guard Association Monday to excoriating her for insulting his supporters.

Some Trump fans have proudly embraced the deplorable label, wearing shirts and carrying signs with the word on them at rallies Monday. Trump brought several of his supporters on stage at one event, allowing them to explain why they are not deplorable.

Clinton’s campaign has shown no indication that any apology or retraction is coming beyond a statement released Saturday walking it back just a step.

"Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that's never a good idea,” Clinton said in the statement. “I regret saying ‘half’ -- that was wrong. But let's be clear, what's really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump hired a major advocate for the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement to run his campaign and that David Duke and other white supremacists see him as a champion of their values.”

Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, continue to demand that Clinton apologize for her comment, and experts and strategists agree that painting a target on Trump’s supporters is dangerous in Clinton.

“Make the race about your opponent’s character and positions!” said Republican strategist David Payne. “Don’t make the race about your opponent’s supporters. By attacking the people, Clinton gave Trump the high ground.”

Her comments have granted Trump an opening to hammer her with “some of the most disciplined retorts we’ve seen from him,” Payne said.

“It would actually be smart for Trump to keep this story alive, even though Clinton’s health problems seem to be dominating recent news cycles,” he said. “If he handles it right, he’ll energize his supporters by reminding them of Clinton’s offensive remarks.”

The disdain for the electorate suggested by Clinton seemingly writing off half of Republicans is a broader bipartisan problem among political elites, said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

“There’s sort of a toxic belief that the voters are stupid. ‘How can they vote for my opponent?’ on both sides,” he said.

Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, noted that Sen. Lindsey Graham had estimated that about 35 percent of Trump supporters were racists earlier this year.

Clinton’s point may have been to encourage outreach and empathy with the other half of Trump supporters, but Kennedy said it is not surprising that Trump and the media have focused instead on the voters she bundled together as irredeemable.

Research by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and others has indicated that most voters have made up their minds by this point in the race and polling trends generally remain stable after the conventions. Kennedy is skeptical that this controversy will be an exception to that.

“Was there anyone who was leaning toward Clinton who will now switch to Trump because she said half of his supporters are racists? That's hard to imagine,” he said.

The comment has been compared to Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of voters in 2012 and Obama’s reference to some Americans as “clinging to their guns and religion” in 2008. The actual impact of those statements may be overestimated, though.

Following the release of secret video of Romney discussing voters who do not pay taxes at a fundraiser, polls showed the margins in the race were largely unchanged. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found that many of the voters Romney did lose over the comment came back to him after the first debate.

Republicans still harp on Obama’s “gun-clinging” remarks today, but they clearly did not stop him from being elected twice.

Clinton supporters have also distinguished her comments from those mistakes, since what she said was in line with her campaign’s message about Trump nurturing alt-right hate and it has sparked a debate they are eager to have.

Some critics have even suggested that Clinton’s talk of “deplorables” was a trap for Trump, one that his campaign has willingly leapt into.

“In the wake of her comment, some media figures decided to devise a ‘deplorables’ quiz for Trump supporters,” wrote Byron York in the Washington Examiner. “Is Person X deplorable? How about Person Y? The effect was to pressure Trump supporters not only to agree with Clinton's larger point but with her precise terminology.”

Pence’s reluctance to adopt Clinton’s wording to describe ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in a CNN interview Monday demonstrated this effect. He readily denounced Duke, but his refusal to specifically call the man deplorable was the headline of much of the coverage of the interview.

An extended focus on Clinton’s contention that some in Trump’s base like Duke are irredeemable racists carries risks for Trump that are already becoming apparent.

Clinton posted a montage on Twitter of the many times Trump has insulted or dismissed groups of Americans and specific people, suggesting his claim to be offended by her name-calling is hypocritical and dishonest.

“From the minute that Trump opened his mouth at his announcement 15 months ago, he has run the most racist campaign in our lifetimes,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “Arguably, the only people that Trump himself has not insulted in the past 15 months are Vladimir Putin and the very small minority who agree with David Duke and the very fringiest of the totalitarian right-wing.”

The Clinton campaign has also reminded the public of the white supremacists, nationalists, and bigots who openly support Trump, some of whom have praised him for elevating their voices.

Because of Trump’s history of controversial statements, his supporters may feel they have to defend their character and insist to friends that they are not racists. The need to distance themselves from the “basket of deplorables” could leave them questioning their own inclusiveness.

“It’s not helpful to Donald Trump if his voters are put in that position,” Ferson said.

Even if Clinton’s original comment was a mistake, the campaign’s response appears strategic.

“If I’m a reluctant Trump voter and the people who are, like me, voting for Trump are portrayed as racist and xenophobic and everything-phobic, I might not want to be associated with that,” he said.

Clinton’s words have prompted media outlets to investigate exactly what percentage of Trump supporters do hold racist, bigoted, and xenophobic views. Polls have shown negative attitudes toward minorities are more prevalent among Trump voters than those supporting other candidates.

In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Monday, 57 percent of respondents said Trump himself is biased against women and minorities.

“There are plenty of racists who are supporting Trump specifically because of his racist statements,” Kennedy said. “Clinton probably shouldn't have said it, but it was true, and that will probably limit the extent of the damage to her campaign.”

Whether this incident is seen as the defining moment in the race that Trump wants it to be may depend on how the media reports it. While the controversy dominated news reports on Saturday, questions about Clinton’s health quickly supplanted it as the top story of the campaign on Sunday.

The Trump campaign’s behavior since then suggests that they, like Clinton, would rather discuss her insulting his base than her suffering from pneumonia.

“She went off-message, and energized Trump’s supporters, damaging her brand and also harming her image with fence-sitters who find it generally distasteful to criticize the electorate,” Payne said.

If there is a shift in the polls in the coming days, it will be difficult to parse which of this weekend’s controversies caused it given Clinton’s health troubles, the jarring video of her collapse, and complaints about her campaign’s lack of transparency about the ailment.

This is the challenge of pinning down turning points in a race packed with events that might have been game-changers in another year.

If Trump wins the election, last weekend may be seen as the moment where the race flipped in his favor, but with nearly 60 days and three presidential debates still to come before voters go to the polls, there will almost certainly be more jaw-dropping and potentially paradigm-shifting events ahead.

“It’s a race of daily defining moments that seem to move the needle not one bit,” Ferson said.

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