If there was any doubt over how Donald Trump was going to go about his problem with women voters it was settled with his new advert.
‘I was very nervous,’ says a woman’s voice above a picture of the White House. As the black and white image fades to one of Bill Clinton, fat cigar in mouth, the message becomes clear. ‘No woman should be subjected to it,’ the voice goes on. The words are spoken by Kathleen Willey and then Juanita Broaddrick, two women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Mr Trump’s caption reads: ‘Is Hillary really protecting women?’
Even before the sound of Hillary Clinton’s cackling laugh, the advert is a creep-fest. Even the hardiest of Clinton fans will feel their skin crawl. And you can be sure this is how the rest of the campaign will go down. Brace yourself for a race to the bottom.
The two prospective candidates have historically low approval ratings. No two nominees have ever been less popular at the start of an election.
Rather than try to woo voters, the only thing holding their support together is hatred of the other side, according to political scientists who talk about the growing phenomenon of ‘negative partisanship’ in America’s polarised politics.
Mr Trump, who is turning out to have an astute tactical mind, knows what to do. Take the contest for female votes. He lags behind Mrs Clinton by 20 percentage points in a head to head contest, according to opinion polls. He is not going to turn that around by trying to woo women over to his camp. His only option is to scare them away from Mrs Clinton with attack ads, dragging up long-forgotten dirt on her husband. Mrs Clinton has realised she will have to go negative too. In recent weeks she has quietly stopped mentioning how she would be the first female president. Instead her supporters are attacking Mr Trump’s record, compiling attack ads of their own that parrot back the billionaire’s choicest comments on women. There was his attack on Megyn Kelly, the Fox News journalist after she subjected to him to tough questioning in the first TV debate: ‘She had blood coming out of her whatever’. Or another Trump soundbite: ‘Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely’
There are plenty to choose from but almost nothing to suggest this will provide a fruitful line of attack. Mr Trump has either shrugged off the criticism or doubled down. None of it has derailed his campaign for the Republican nomination and he is gambling that his path to the White House is similarly immune. He has a point. Even some of the liberal readers of the New York Times reacted to a 2500-word piece on his women problems with a sort of ‘meh’, according to the paper’s letters page.
This should not come as a surprise. When Mr Trump was still friends with the Clintons, he offered this advice to Bill over his Monica Lewinsky problems in 1998: take responsibility, remember your enemies have their own weaknesses and hold fast to your political agenda.
‘After the initial shock is past, the American people are less interested in sexual transgressions than they are in public achievements,’ he said.
Today he thinks that enough voters are more interested in his own business successes and policies rather than his treatment of women to protect him in the gender battle field. Sure, his new advert is nasty. The picture of Bill Clinton and that cigar between his lips signals how no rumour will be left unexploited as Mr Trump plumbs the depths.
It may yet be a winning strategy for him. It has served him well so far and as Mrs Clinton begins her attacks it underscores just how nasty this race is going to be.
This is becoming the Millwall election: ‘No-one likes us, we don’t care,’ might as well be the candidates’ rallying calls.