Linda Killian is executive director of Independent Americans United and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Her most recent book is “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents.” She is on Twitter: @lindajkillian.
Not since Donald Trump launched his campaign last June has he made as powerful a speech as the one he gave Wednesday attacking Hillary Clinton as “a world-class liar” who has profited from her time in public office.
When he announced his candidacy, I thought his message about a corrupt political system and a nation that has lost its way would resonate with voters because his blunt, straightforward style differed so much from those of traditional politicians.
Mr. Trump inspires passion among some voters–but his rhetoric and positions have also alienated many people, and there are doubts about the capabilities of his campaign operation and his own discipline. Skeptical Republicans, independents and others will be watching to see whether he can stick to his newly focused message and refrain from wandering off script.
At the center of Wednesday’s speech–his first substantial attack on Mrs. Clinton–were questions about her honesty and judgment and efforts to link her behavior and decisions as secretary of state to donations made to the Clinton foundation.
“Hillary Clinton has perfected the politics of personal profit and even theft. She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund–doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others…in exchange for cash,” Mr. Trump charged. “She gets rich making you poor.”
The many polls showing public mistrust in Mrs. Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness suggest this could be fertile ground for Mr. Trump. His attacks might resonate with swing voters and some Bernie Sanders supporters, to whom he has repeatedly appealed.Recent Bloomberg polling found that just over half of Sanders supporters plan to vote for Mrs. Clinton; 22% said they would vote for Mr. Trump and 18% favor Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Many rooted their distrust of Mrs. Clinton in seeing her as part of the Washington establishment and/or untrustworthy.
The race is tight in swing states. New Quinnipiac polling shows Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump 47% to 39% in Florida but by only one point in Pennsylvania and they are tied in Ohio.
In a speech Wednesday largely about her economic proposals, Mrs. Clinton responded to some of Mr. Trump’s allegations. She defended the Clinton foundation and brought up Mr. Trump’s bankruptcies. She also said that children work in his foreign factories to produce his clothing line.
Mr. Trump has made statements about the tax code and criticized other government policies while running as the first presidential candidate in decades not to release his tax records. Mrs. Clinton and other Democrats, suspecting that the businessman has benefited from policies he has faulted, have criticized and will continue to hammer him on this.
This election could come down to which politician voters believe more. If Mrs. Clinton can paint Mr. Trump as a hypocrite, rather than a champion of the middle class, it could undermine his message. But if he can continue to hammer her as another untrustworthy politician who personally profited from her public service, this could be a closer race than many expect.