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Complicated Candidates for a Conflicted America

Last week, Wolf Blitzer, the longtime face of CNN Politics, moderated a panel at the Newseum on the “incredibly extraordinary” 2016 presidential race. The four CNN journalists who joined him on stage shared their experiences covering an unprecedented election cycle. After months of crisscrossing the country, first during primary season and now as members of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s press corps, the panelists agreed that the candidates are a direct reflection of the country’s atmosphere. Clinton and Trump cater to the hopes, fears, frustrations, and cynicisms of various segments of a population as fragmented as it is complex. Below are some key insights on the electorate that Clinton and Trump will face on November 8.

“Different people in this country want different things from their leaders.”

Voters across the political spectrum are frustrated by the direction of the country. Terrorist attacks at home and abroad, coupled with social unrest and deepening racial divides in U.S. cities, have created a political environment characterized by fear. Americans agree that a strong, bold leader is needed to solve these complex challenges, but voters differ dramatically in the traits they find appealing in a candidate. Hillary Clinton’s supporters appreciate that she is measured and steady, while Donald Trump backers find his unrehearsed, unedited, and unpredictable style refreshing. People approach the nation’s problems from diverse perspectives. The two candidates cater to particular factions of a starkly divided U.S. population.

“People want to feel safe.”

The shadows of the September 11 attacks and 2008 economic collapse are long and dark. Many Americans have not felt safe, both from a national security and economic standpoint, in years. Voters are seeking security from their next president. Clinton’s experience as security of state, New York senator, and first lady, is a double-edged sword. She has battled terrorism and been in the White House Situation Room when critical decisions were made, including the 2011 mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Clinton, however, has also been branded part of the Obama status quo, which some blame for the rise of ISIS and other major national security failures. Trump’s forcefulness and political inexperience comforts voters disillusioned with Washington and anxious about the future.

“It’s the economy, stupid. That’s what affects everyone’s pocketbooks, affects everyone’s life.”

The phrase famously coined by Democratic political strategist James Carville during the 1992 presidential race remains applicable today. The economy’s health will always be a key, if not the deciding, factor in presidential elections. People vote with their financial interests in mind. Election Day is in some ways a referendum on how the sitting president has managed the economy. The economy has improved under Obama, unemployment is down and the Dow is up, but Democrats are not guaranteed a victory in November. Clinton has struggled to cultivate the millennial support that propelled Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012. College-age millennial voters, a vital voting bloc for Clinton, do not remember the dismal economy Obama faced when he took office and, therefore, are less fearful of another recession.

“It’s been helpful for America to realize just how many voices are out there and how many voices have not been heard.”

Republicans traditionally support their party’s nominee, even if the nominee was not the candidate they voted for in the primary. Trump has not unified the Republican Party as successfully as his predecessors. Trump must compensate for that lost support by attracting voters who do not typically vote Republican or vote at all. This schism is emblematic of both Trump’s nontraditional candidacy and the diversity of American conservatism in 2016. A sizable faction of the Republican Party rejects Trump’s message and disagrees with his proposals. Some are openly embarrassed by their party’s nominee. The Democratic Party has not fully coalesced around Clinton either, but the division is not as deep. Neither party is a monolith; rather they are comprised of many competing voices, some of which have gone unheard.

None of the panelists theorized how the remaining stretch of the race would unfold or which of the two historic candidates would ultimately be inaugurated. All agreed that in a campaign season marked by spectacle and shock, anything could happen. There are too many factors at play to make reliable predictions about candidates who have already defied so many expectations. As Digital Correspondent Chris Moody said, “there is nothing boring about what is about to go on for the next several weeks.”

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