In the days after Donald J. Trump vanquished his Republican rivals in South Carolina and Nevada, prominent Democrats supporting Hillary Clinton arranged a series of meetings and conference calls to tackle a question many never thought they would ask: How do we defeat Trump in a general election?
Several Democrats argued that Clinton, should she be her party’s nominee, would easily beat Trump. They were confident that his incendiary remarks about immigrants, women and Muslims would make him unacceptable to many Americans. They had faith that the growing electoral power of black, Hispanic and female voters would deliver a Clinton landslide if he were the Republican nominee.
But others, including former President Bill Clinton, dismissed those conclusions as denial. They said that Trump clearly had a keen sense of the electorate’s mood and that only a concerted campaign portraying him as dangerous and bigoted would win what both Clintons believe will be a close November election.
That strategy is beginning to take shape, with groups that support Hillary Clinton preparing to script and test ads that would portray Trump as a misogynist and an enemy to the working class whose brash temper would put the nation and the world in grave danger. The plan is for those themes to be amplified later by two prominent surrogates: To fight Trump’s ability to sway the news cycle, Bill Clinton would not hold back on the stump, and President Barack Obama has told allies he would gleefully portray Trump as incapable of handling the duties of the Oval Office.
Democrats say they risk losing the presidency if they fail to take Trump seriously, much as Republicans have done in the primary campaign.
“He’s formidable, he understands voters’ anxieties, and he will be ruthless against Hillary Clinton,’’ said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut. “I’ve gone from denial — ‘I can’t believe anyone would listen to this guy’ — to admiration, in the sense that he’s figured out how to capture everyone’s angst, to real worry.’’
During the first Republican debate last summer, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, shushed a room full of people at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters when Trump started to speak, almost giddily captivated by the wildness of his remarks. “Shh, I’ve got to get me some Trump,’’ he said.
Now, Mook and his colleagues regard Trump as a wily, determined and indefatigable opponent who seems to be speaking to broad economic anxieties among Americans and to the widely held belief that traditional politicians are incapable of addressing those problems. Publicly, the Clinton operation is letting the Republicans slug it out. But privately, it and other Democrats are poring over polling data to understand the roots of Trump’s populist appeal and building up troves of opposition research on his business career.
“The case against Trump will be prosecuted on two levels,’’ said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist in 2008. “The first is temperament,’’ and whether he is suited to be commander in chief, Garin said, echoing conversations that have dominated Democratic circles recently. The second “will be based on whether he can really be relied on as a champion for anyone but himself.’’
But the tactics the Clintons have used for years to take down opponents may fall short in a contest between the blunt and unpredictable Trump and the cautious and scripted Clinton: a matchup that operatives on both sides predicted would be an epic, ugly clash between two vastly disparate politicians.
“Hillary has built a large tanker ship, and she’s about to confront Somali pirates,’’ said Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist.
This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen advisers, strategists and close allies of the Clintons, including several who have spoken directly with Bill Clinton. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss strategy publicly.
The greatest weapon against Trump, the Clintons believe, is his tendency to make outrageous, even hateful comments that can come across as unpresidential. During the most recent Republican debate on Thursday, Trump traded schoolyard taunts with his rivals and threatened to build an even bigger wall on the Mexican border because he did not like a rebuke of his original wall proposal by a former president of Mexico.
In South Carolina and Tennessee, Hillary Clinton began to lay the groundwork for what advisers call “a campaign against bigotry,’’ in which she will present herself as the fair-minded foil to Trump. She declared that Americans needed more “love and kindness.’’
“Instead of building walls,’’ she has started to say, “we need to be tearing down barriers.’’
During the Republican debate on Thursday, the Clinton campaign posted an image on Instagram that said, “These are not American values: Racism, sexism, bigotry, discrimination, inequality.’’
While Clinton radiates positive energy on the trail, Democratic groups are beginning to coalesce around a strategy to deliver sustained and brutal attacks on Trump.
The plan has three major thrusts: Portray Trump as a heartless businessman who has worked against the interests of the working-class voters he now appeals to; broadcast the degrading comments he has made against women in order to sway suburban women, who have been reluctant to support Clinton; and highlight his brash, explosive temper to show he is unsuited to be commander in chief.
American Bridge, a pro-Clinton “super PAC,’’ has formed a “due diligence unit’’ of tax and business experts who are poring over Securities and Exchange Commission documents and court records related to Trump’s business career.
A staff member for an affiliated group, Correct the Record, which coordinates with Clinton’s campaign, has collected footage of comments that have not hurt Trump’s standing among Republican primary voters, but that could be stitched together in what the group’s founder, David Brock, described as a montage of hateful speech that would appall a general electorate.
“There is something to this idea that nothing has stuck,’’ Brock said, but that, he argued, is because the Republicans have been too restrained to avoid offending Trump’s supporters.
In the coming weeks, Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Clinton that effectively portrayed Mitt Romney as a cold corporate titan in the 2012 campaign, will begin scripting and testing ads that use a similar approach against Trump.
As Hillary Clinton tries to remain above the fray, Bill Clinton would be unleashed to respond when Trump lashed out. Obama has already argued that Trump should not be trusted with the job and has told allies he will continue that charge. In February, asked about Trump, he said the president has “the nuclear codes with them and can order 21-year-olds into a firefight.’’
Jennifer Palmieri, a Clinton spokeswoman, said that she was focused on the primary, but that “she was the first person to call Trump out on either side, and we reserve the right to do that depending on the circumstances.’’
Even as Democrats prepare to take on Trump, there remains deep anxiety that the messages may not break through.
In January, Clinton advisers were startled after Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas released an ad that alleged that Trump had used eminent domain to try to bulldoze an elderly widow’s home in Atlantic City, making way for a parking lot to accompany one of his namesake casinos.
The woman won the legal battle and remained in her home, but the ad, which Trump disputed, did not dent his support.
Trump emphatically denies being bigoted, saying he is simply not “politically correct.’’ But he has already signaled that he would be vicious against Hillary Clinton. He said that she should be indicted for her use of a private email server as secretary of state and that Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs were “fair game’’ in the election because they were an “abuse of women.’’
A shifting map
Unless these attacks are effective, Hillary Clinton’s advisers worry that Trump could pose a threat in some states Obama won in 2008 and 2012, including some the party once considered safe.
Clinton’s uneven performance with male voters so far, especially white men, could create an opening for Trump to attract Democrats and independents who are socially and culturally moderate and open to his call for a strong military, fearless foreign policy and businessman’s approach to the economy. Those voters could give him an edge in places like North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008. But Clinton advisers also worry about Ohio, Florida and Democratic-leaning states in presidential elections that Trump has vowed to contest, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Edward G. Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania who is supporting Clinton, said that he thought she would ultimately win Pennsylvania, but conceded that he could be wrong. “He has crossover appeal with some blue-collar working-class Democrats,’’ Rendell said. The key to defeating Trump, he said, was to keep coaxing him into making offensive or extreme comments that would alienate independents and others who might normally vote for a Republican nominee.
“For every one of those blue-collar Democrats he picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that,’’ he said.
Former Gov. Jim Hodges of South Carolina, who campaigned there on Thursday with Bill Clinton, said the former president was girding for a hard-fought election if Trump is the Republican nominee. “The president sees Trump as formidable, no question,’’ Hodges said. “He takes him seriously. The campaign takes him seriously.’’
A clash of styles
“They’ll flip their top, and they’ll flip their panties…’’ read the subject line of a recent news release from Emily’s List, a group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. The quote came from comments Trump made about women on “The Howard Stern Show’’ in the 1990s, unearthed by BuzzFeed last month. The news release also listed a remark Trump made about sleeping with an actress if “she just put a bag on her head.’’
Those types of comments, spoken by Trump over the years as he served as a tabloid regular and reality TV star, could help Hillary Clinton excite suburban women and young women who have been ambivalent or antagonistic toward her candidacy.
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, said that an expanded research shop at the organization had compiled “an endless amount of misogynistic and outrageous comments towards women.’’
The strategy highlights a concern among Clinton’s allies that her chance to become the first female president has not led to widespread excitement among young women. Trump is the perfect solution to the enthusiasm gap, many Democrats say.
They also say that, while Trump has proved adept at emasculating his male opponents, as with his “low energy’’ slight at Jeb Bush, his insults directed at Carly Fiorina and the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly have fallen flat or backfired. Fiorina had the best week of her short-lived campaign after Trump insulted her face and she rallied women around her candidacy.
And Clinton has benefited in her career when male opponents have overstepped or appeared to bully her.
But as Democrats hold their breath for the next sexist comment, they also acknowledge a problem that opposition research cannot fix: Trump and Clinton are polar opposite politicians, and Trump’s direct and visceral style could prove difficult for Clinton, whose inclination is detailed policy talk and 12-point plans.
“Can you imagine what he’ll do?’’ Dowd, the Republican operative, said. She will bring up equal pay for women and abortion rights, Dowd said, “and he’ll turn to her and say, ‘You can’t even handle your stuff at home.’’’
Bill Clinton calls Trump ideal in the era of the “Instagram election,’’ when voters want bite-size solutions (“Build a wall!’’ “Ban the Muslims!’’) to complex problems. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, can appear scripted and static when she tries to hurl planned one-liners in debates.
It will be hard for Hillary Clinton to focus on policy and stay above the fray as her opponent and her own operation dig in for a brutish campaign. “Hope and change, not so much,’’ said David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s 2008 campaign, referring to the slogan that defined that campaign. “More like hate and castrate.’’