If this is the way Donald Trump wants to play, Hillary Clinton’s campaign says bring it on.
With the party nominations now mostly locked in, Trump decided to aim his first salvo of the general election campaign squarely at Clinton’s gender. How Clinton’s campaign dealt with attack is a microcosm of how they plan to deal with, and ultimately defeat, Trump in November.
“If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote,” Trump said at a press conference Tuesday before all the results had even come in from the day’s primary elections. "The only thing she's got going is the woman's card, and the beautiful thing is, women don't like her."
He followed it up Wednesday during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” by saying he still hasn’t “quite recovered” from her “shouting” the night before: “I know a lot of people would say you can’t say that about a woman, because of course a woman doesn’t shout.”
It was an appropriately inappropriate kickoff to what is widely expected to be the ugliest, most personal general election in recent memories.
Trump has previously accused Bill Clinton of being a rapist and Hillary Clinton of lacking stamina, making it clear that his argument against her will be largely ad hominem. That should perhaps be no surprise from candidate who recently attacked rival John Kasich for the way he ate pancakes.
But Trump’s aggression and ability to command attention present unique challenges to Clinton.
These issues are personally uncomfortable and politically unpredictable. If Trump can get under Clinton’s skin, he could force her to make a damaging error.
His attacks tend to drown out anything else on the campaign, including whatever message Clinton is trying to advance. No one wants to spend an entire campaign being asked to respond to Trump’s latest bombshell. Just ask his Republican rivals.
Instead of running a steady messaging plan, every day at Clinton HQ will be a series of high stakes on-the-fly decisions about what to respond to and what to ignore. That’s not ideal operating conditions for a juggernaut like Clinton’s campaign, which will always be less nimble than Trump’s nearly one-man decision making structure.
While Trump can throw a dozen attacks at the wall and see what sticks, Clinton, a former top diplomat, is held to a different standard and chooses her words more carefully.
Despite all that, Clinton aides and allies have reason to be confident Trump’s personal attacks will backfire on him. Here’s how they plan to make sure that happens.
Let Trump be Trump
Just because Trump can command the news cycle, that doesn’t mean that it’s always good for him.
Take his attack on Clinton’s “woman’s card.” Women make up a larger share of the electorate than men, they already lean Democratic, and were always key to Clinton’s strategy for winning the White House.
For whatever the attack might accomplish, it also exacerbates his biggest demographic weaknesses. This month's national NBC News/WSJ poll found 69 percent of all women have an unfavorable view of Trump. In a hypothetical general election matchup, just 33 percent of women said they'd support Trump, while 56 percent say they’d back Clinton.
Trump’s views haven’t hurt him much yet, but Clinton aides say they they won’t sit well with a general election audience.
“He has been able to sustain [gendered attacks] amongst a hardcore group of conservative partisans that form the core of the GOP primary electorate, but those voters become a much smaller pool in the general election,” said former Obama adviser Ben LaBolt. “At some point, when you insult the key constituency group that decides presidential elections, you will pay a significant price.”
Clinton aides are also confident that Trump cannot sustain his personal attacks until November.
For one, general elections are team efforts, and other Republicans, many of whom spent the past four years Todd Akin-proofing their party, will be reluctant to amplify Trump’s most inflammatory attacks.
That discomfort was visible all over the face of Mary Pat Christie, the wife of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who rolled her eyes and winced behind Trump Tuesday night as he made his comment about Clinton’s gender.
Pick your battles
“The theory of the case is when he goes low, go high,” explained one Clinton aide.
Clinton will try to avoid getting sucked into Trump’s personal attacks as much as possible, while hitting him aggressively on more substantive issues to demonstrate her willingness to fight him.
Trump’s ad hominems have been devastating in the primary. Whether it’s forever branding Jeb Bush as “low energy” or Marco Rubio “Lil Marco,” Trump's sharp tongue helped him clear the field. When Rubio tried to play Trump's game, mocking his hand size and tan, it presaged the Floridian's downfall. The relative lack of policy distance between the candidates meant Trump’s opponents had little room to maneuver away from his attacks -- a problem Clinton allies say they won’t have.
On Wednesday, Clinton essentially turned the other cheek on Trump’s “woman’s card” attack in the morning, while she hit Trump hard on the foreign policy speech he delivered in the afternoon.
Surrogates can express outrage at Trump’s personal attacks, while the candidate herself will eschew and try to redirect them to related policy issues.
“Trump's rhetoric is just the beginning," Clinton tweeted Wednesday. "He's dismissed equal pay. Wouldn't support paid family leave. Would defund Planned Parenthood.” Fundraising emails and text messages made the same pivot.
“Trump wants to make it about Hillary; Hillary wants to make it about the middle class and the poor. Trump wants to sling insults; Hillary wants to push ideas,” said Paul Begala, former adviser to Bill Clinton who is involved with a pro-Clinton super PAC.
Block his move to the center
Trump’s promise strike a more “presidential” tone has so far failed to materialize, as evidenced again by his “woman’s card” remark. But if he does moderate this tone, pro-Clinton forces will have to spend a lot of time and money reminding voters of what he said during the primary.
Instead of portraying him as a flip-flopper, the way they Democrats did Mitt Romney, Clinton's team will argue that Primary Election Trump is the real Trump and General Election Trump is just pandering for votes. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Clinton often says of Trump.
Leverage Republicans turned off by Trump
Clinton doesn’t need Republican votes to win, but they would be nice to have. And if she can attract a few big-name Republicans to her side, they’d be important in the efforts to validate her against Trump.
She won't even need many to sign on, as the GOP primary created an archive's worth of Republican attacks on Trump. "He has a problem with women, clearly," Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz's newly minted running mate, said of the GOP front-runner Wednesday.
Nearly a quarter of Republicans who voted in Tuesday’s primaries say they won’t vote Trump in November, according to NBC News exit polls. Sitting senators and conservative leaders have made similar promises, while none other than Charles Koch left the door open to voting for Clinton.
During her victory speech Tuesday night, Clinton reached out to everyone concerned about Trump, whether “a Democrat, an Independent, or a thoughtful Republican.”
Entreaties to such Republicans, however, will have to take a backseat to efforts to reach out Bernie Sanders supporters.
Use the rest of the primary calendar to plant issue seeds
May is looking like a free month for Clinton. She won’t have to worry too much more about Bernie Sanders, but the general election won’t have officially started yet, either.
In the meanwhile, aides plan to use her travel to the remaining primary states to plant the seeds of policy issues that will be valuable in the general election. For instance, ahead of Indiana’s primary next week, Clinton has used her time in the state to focus almost entirely on manufacturing, a top issue in swing states like Ohio.
While just a few months ago Democrats feared Trump might be more dangerous than other Republican possible nominees, their anxiety has since declined as they’ve seen Trump’s unfavorable numbers tick up across the country. He would be the least popular major party nominee in modern history.
Trump has shown little ability to grow as a candidate to take advantage of the unique opportunities created by his unusual candidacy.
Still, Clinton is hardly popular herself, with more Americans holding a negative view of her than hold a positive one. And she has shown some lack of discipline herself. Just this week, she was overly defensive about Sanders voters at an MSNBC town hall Monday.
November is a long way off and Trump has shattered accepted truths plenty of times this election cycle.