Todd Zwillich: Deplorable? Which Basket are You in?

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Supporters to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally.
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The following essay is by Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich. Click on the 'Listen' button to hear the audio essay.

Let's talk about this presidential campaign's ‘deplorables’ for a minute.

Friday, Hillary Clinton set the news media and Donald Trump supporters on fire when she let it slip at a fundraiser that Trump's supporters sit in two baskets:

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorable.’ Right?" The audience laughed and applauded. Clinton continues, "They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, islamophobic — you name it.”

A presidential candidate vilifying millions of voters? What a huge gaffe!

News outlets from The Washington Post to Fox News pounced on Hillary's words, calling the comment a self-inflicted wound. And they followed it with analysis, saying Hillary was being grossly unfair saying Trump voters had racial biases. Even more analysis discussed that it's always a bad idea to attack voters, of any stripe. 

But here's the thing: For a “September disaster” gaffe, this is one that can only benefit Clinton. 

Let's rewind for a second and look at the worst part about how the media covered Clinton's comment: There was almost no coverage on whether the claim is true. 

As Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic has pointed out: polls have investigated this 'deplorable' idea long before Hillary's comment. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 60 percent of Trump supporters have a negative view of Islam. 76 percent in a Texas Politics poll support banning Muslims from the US. According to Reuters, nearly half of Republicans rated blacks as more violent and more criminal than whites.

The blanket word “deplorable” is Clinton’s, but it has to be acknowledged that there is some evidence that her claim that half of Trump’s supporters are racially or ethnically biased is true. It actually looks like that claim was an understatement. But this is politics, and truth telling is not always a good idea, right? If you’re Googling the definition of ‘gaffe,’ here’s one: A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth unintentionally. 

It's not the first time a presidential candidate has made such a sweeping claim about voter groups. Mitt Romney attacked the 47 percent of Americans, saying they just wanted a free handout from the government, and it was terrible for him. It's clear that it's rarely a good idea for a politician to blatantly go after the poor and working class. But Hillary went after racists and xenophobes.

 If you’re saying to yourself,  "Well this will really hurt Hillary!" Then you have to ask yourself:  "Which voters did she isolate?" 

This is a speculation, but a safe one: Not one Trump supporter who was truly offended by what Clinton said about them was a gett-able vote for Clinton anyway. Are they saying, "I'm not voting Hillary after this!" No. If there's a Trump supporter saying that, that person is a unicorn. 

Think about a place like the critical Philadelphia suburbs in the must-win swing state of Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, President Obama was in Philly helping drive up turnout for Clinton. A large chunk of the Philly suburbs might be willing to vote for Trump, but they just aren't sure. They're Republicans or Independents, but they just don't like what Trump says. They don't like his insults. And they don't like what they see among his strongest supporters. That's right. They're queasy about getting into Trump's basket.

How can we know this is true? Well, Trump knows it's true. It's his strategy. He's running on it. 

Donald Trump's ceiling so far in this campaign has been about 43 percent. He's barely broken it. Obviously, that's not enough to win. So he's been staging some outreach to African-Americans and Latinos, and as it’s been reported here on The Takeaway, that outreach has less to do with getting minority voters and a lot more to do with making nervous white voters believe that Trump’s campaign isn’t racist. "It's O.K.," this 'minority outreach' whispers. "You can get in this basket without feeling....deplorable." 

Then along comes Clinton saying half of Trump's supporters are deplorable. The media covers it as a gaffe. We love gaffes in the media business. And then the debate follows: "Half?" "How could she say that?" "Just how racist are Trump's supporters?" "Is it only 10 percent?" "15 percent?"

Meanwhile, Trump's true deplorables - the racists, the white nationalists - they're flying their flags more proudly than ever. They're happy to get called out by Clinton, to be put on display for voters to see. When Mike Pence refused to call David Duke a certain word on CNN, the former Klu Klux Klan Imperial Wizard was thrilled. What was the word, you ask? “Deplorable.” 

Pence did say he doesn’t want David Duke’s support, but it was muddled. That's some message to send to Republicans who are already nervous about the election. 

Coverage of Clinton's fainting spell and pneumonia diagnosis clouded some of the “deplorable” debate. But Trump brought “deplorable” back into the spotlight with this fiery speech attack

"Nobody's heard anything like this. She called these patriotic men and women every vile name in the book. She called them racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic. She called half of our supporters a "basket of deplorables."” 

He was full of indignation and anger at the insult. And his campaign is using the gaffe to drive fundraising. That's fine. But Trump’s outrage only works if all or most of the Republicans he he needs agree with him. Right now, they probably don't. Remember, 43 percent of the projected vote is his highest figure. And that's this far into campaign season.

Even before Trump's attacks, Hillary had backtracked a little, saying, "O.K. I shouldn't have said ‘half’." It wasn’t much of an apology. The rest of the statement doubled down on the basket and the deplorable people in it. Overall, Hillary's comment was panned by pundits and journalists for attacking voters, for dividing the country. But it didn't divide the country, the country is already divided. Clinton has a lead in this race, albeit a narrowing one. If Clinton's comment divided anyone, it divided Trump from the very uneasy Republican white voters he still needs to convince if he is really going to have a chance in November.

We can't know if this “gaffe” will work. But if that was an unintentional bit of honesty, it looks a pretty savvy move for Hillary Clinton. And it helps guarantee that lots American voters will start thinking hard about this question: What basket are you in? And who is in that basket with you?