2016: The year of the unlikable candidate?

Voters often talk about casting their ballot for the "lesser of two evils" in a presidential election. This year, that seems especially true: most voters really don't seem to like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

As the race heads toward the general election, polling finds both candidates to be by far the least popular likely party nominees in decades--a dynamic that signals a bruising and nasty battle between now and November.

An ABC/Washington Post poll released Sunday found Clinton and Trump each at 57 percent unfavorable--higher than any other party nominees since the history of the Post-ABC poll. Trump's favorability rating was 40 percent (a 17-point deficit), while Clinton's was 41 percent (a 16-point deficit).

And asked whether they were voting for their candidate or against the other candidate, approximately half of each candidate's supporters said they were voting to vote against the other candidate. Among Clinton supporters, 48 percent said their vote was a vote for Clinton, while an equal percentage said it was a vote against Trump; among Trump supporters, 44 percent said they were voting for Trump versus 53 percent said they were voting against Clinton.

The same trend is true in another national poll out Sunday from NBC/Wall Street Journal. In that survey, Clinton's favorability rating is underwater by 20 points: 34 percent view her favorably, compared with 54 percent who view her unfavorably. They're even worse for Trump: twice as many voters view him unfavorably (58 percent) as those who view him favorably (29 percent)--a 29-point deficit.

And it's even true in the states: a CBS News Battleground Tracker poll out Sunday found both candidates with high unfavorables in perennial swing states Ohio and Florida. In Ohio, Trump's unfavorability rating was at 59 percent, compared with 32 percent favorable; Clinton's was at 55, compared with 37 percent favorable. In Florida, asked how they feel about the prospect of a Clinton nomination, 35 percent said "scared" and 25 percent said "concerned;" and 26 percent were "scared" and 33 percent were "concerned" about Trump's nomination.

Nationally, Trump saw some positive movement--a CBS News / New York Times national poll released Thursday found that while both Clinton and Trump have high unfavorables, Trump's unfavorables had dropped from 63 percent last month to 55 percent this month. Clinton's, however, changed very little, just two percent, from 54 percent to 52 percent.

The only politicians in the polls to get a net positive rating in the two national polls were Bernie Sanders (+8 in the ABC/Post poll; +7 in the NBC/WSJ poll) and President Obama (+5 in the ABC/Post poll; +8 in the NBC/WSJ poll).

It's important to note that isn't always this way: though tough campaigns can take a toll on a candidate's favorability ratings, both Clinton and Trump start at historic lows. Back in 2012, just as Democrats were launching an all-out assault on Republican Mitt Romney's business record, USA Today/Gallup had his favorability rating at 50 percent (with 41 percent unfavorable). In that same poll, President Obama was at 52 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable.

Going back further, to 2008, both Mr. Obama and John McCain were considerably less known among the American public by this point in the race. A CBS/New York Times poll in late May found Obama with a 41 percent favorable rating and a 31 percent unfavorable rating; McCain, however, was slightly underwater at 34 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable.

Part of the difference with this year's likely nominees is that it's not as if voters' feelings toward Trump and Clinton are particularly new: in fact, both candidates were incredibly well-known before they launched their respective 2016 campaigns, so much of the public's view of both has been developing over decades.

Looking back a month, similar sentiments showed up in an April NBC/WSJ poll, which asked voters whether they could see themselves supporting each potential candidate. At the time, 68 percent of those surveyed said they couldn't see themselves voting for Trump; 58 percent said the same of Clinton.

While it's worth noting that those numbers are back from when Trump still had a competitive primary--plenty of reluctant Republicans have since fallen in line and said they'll support the businessman--those are still a further data point in the unlikability of both front-runners.

There are still more than five months until Election Day, so plenty could change. But the unprecedented negative views toward not one, but both party standard-bearers says something about the kind of race to expect going forward: a bruising and bloody one. When your candidate isn't particularly well liked, the best strategy is to make it about the other guy--and both candidates are already hinting at doing just that.

Clinton, for example, says she's going to run her race and let Trump run his--but she's already begun describing him as "dangerous" for the country. In order to turn out Democratic voters en masse, Clinton's campaign and her allies will work to stoke fears about Trump as commander-in-chief.

"The slogan is 'Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid,'" Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton loyalist who advises the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, told BuzzFeed earlier this year.

And with Trump, it's easy to see him dragging out into the light every possible Clinton scandal over the years, from Whitewater to the Monica Lewinsky scandal to recent questions about the Clinton Foundation and Clinton's private email server. He's already referred repeatedly to Clinton as an "enabler," saying she was responsible for helping her husband cheat throughout his political career, and last week used the word "rape" to talk about Bill Clinton's interactions with several women who have accused him of sexual misconduct.

  • Emily Schultheis

    Emily Schultheis is a reporter/editor for CBS News Digital.