Special: Will 2016 race be the most negative in history?

Aug. 21, 2015 AT 9:42 p.m. EDT

With 22 candidates running for the presidency and billions of dollars set to be spent on campaign ads, the 2016 race for the White House is shaping up to be the most negative in history. Morning Consult's Reid Wilson says that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are still on track to be their party's nominees, but they are both facing hard opinions from voters. The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe says to expect biographical ads from the Bush campaign by the end of the year hoping to reintroduce him to voters. Their message? You may know the Bush name, but you don't know Jeb. As for Clinton, The Atlantic's Molly Ball says that the candidate is "terribly choreographed," but she is trying to loosen up voters' opinions.

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ANNOUNCER : This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra .

MS. IFILL : Hello, I’m Gwen Ifill. I’m joined around the table by Molly Ball of The Atlantic , Josh Gerstein of POLITICO , Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post , and Reid Wilson of Morning Consult .

This campaign has been nothing if not unconventional. Campaign headquarters? Who needs them. I was in Iowa this week and I went looking for the Donald Trump headquarters in Des Moines. This is what it looked like. I took a picture.

(A picture is shown.)

MS. IFILL : That’s it. It is nothing but that sign. There’s no furniture, no lights on, no people. But you don’t need it, it turns out. This is how unconventional this campaign has become. Big crowds in August, how is that happening? And whatever happened to the Republican Party’s postmortem, which outlined all the things it should do to win the next time? For now, it’s cast aside. Look at the polls and it feels like a big shoe it getting ready to drop, we just don’t know on whom. What happens when they all start running actual advertising, Reid?

MR. WILSON : It is – I think we’re about to see one of the most negative campaigns in history, perhaps the most negative campaign, for a couple of different reasons.

First of all, we’ve got the candidates who are likely to become the nominees. I would speculate that I think Jeb Bush is more likely to be the Republican nominee than any other candidate at this point. Hillary Clinton, still more likely to be the Democratic candidate. A significant portion of Americans know these people and have very firm, very hard opinions on them, and those opinions are not positive. More Americans see both Bush and Clinton unfavorably than favorably. More than half of Americans, according two polls that came out this week, see both of them unfavorably. I should say more than half –

MS. IFILL : Maybe because they know them better?

MR. WILSON : Because they know them, because they’ve been around. Nobody is – nobody doesn’t have an opinion of the Bush family or the Clinton family. That sort of –

MS. IFILL : And Trump?

MR. WILSON : Well, Trump’s – I mean, more than half of Americans see Donald Trump unfavorably, too. But –

MS. IFILL : Yeah, that’s my point. (Laughs.)

MR. WILSON : Yeah, well. But so that incentivizes the campaigns to go negative on the other person. If you can’t increase your own favorable numbers, the best way to do something is to take out the opponent.

MS. IFILL : For now, all we’re seeing is soft focus, biographical –

MR. WILSON : Yeah, these are the friendly ads introducing John Kasich and Bobby Jindal to primary voters. But once you get to the general election, you’ve got candidates who are going to be very well known and pretty much unpopular, and then you’ve got super PACs. And super PACs, over the limited course of their career in politics, have done nothing but advertise negatively. The percentage of super PAC spending that is spent on negative ads? Something like 98, 99 percent.

MS. IFILL : Wow.

MR. O’KEEFE : And yet –

MS. IFILL : And yet.

MR. O’KEEFE : – the vow of Right to Rise USA, which is the Bush-aligned super PAC, is that they will go positive, at least initially, in $10 million spent in the three early primary –

MS. IFILL : You mean till next week, initially? (Laughter.)

MR. O’KEEFE : The plan is to buy time between September and December and run primarily biographical ads about Jeb Bush, the argument being that you know the Bush family but you don’t know this guy, and that once you realize that he was a two-term governor of Florida and did a lot of tremendously conservative things that the tide might turn in his favor, if they remain positive.

MS. IFILL : OK, let me try something out on you guys. If honesty and authenticity is what voters are hungering for this year, right, and that’s – that makes negative campaigning risky, but it also means that if you are trying to break out from under the Trump banner, you have a little – you have a little problem. Listen to what Donald Trump did this week when Jeb Bush changed his mind on anchor babies or on immigration. He said he should stay authentic, he should stay true to what he originally believed. This is Donald Trump, who’s changed his mind on a host of things. Is that what they’re paying – what they’re all playing to?

MS.BALL : The thirst for authenticity, you mean?

MS. IFILL : Yeah, yeah.

MS.BALL : Yeah, well, I mean, I don’t think it’s calculated on Trump’s part. I think he is who he is, and that is part of the appeal, right? Same with Bernie Sanders. I don’t know that he’s capable of sort of being packaged and controlled and handled in the way that conventional politicians expect to be. Along the same lines, I don’t think Hillary Clinton is capable of stepping outside that box. We’ve heard repeatedly over the years, oh, she’s going to be herself now. Well, this is who she is.

MS. IFILL : They do keep saying that.

MS.BALL : She is this terribly choreographed person, this person who’s fundamentally sort of stiff in front of a microphone or a crowd, and who gets all tangled up in herself and cannot tell a joke to save her life. And you know –

MR. O’KEEFE : Not a good one. (Laughs.)

MS.BALL : Candidates sort of tend to revert to type. Hillary Clinton has a lot of strengths, but that isn’t one of them. And so we are seeing who she really is.

MS. IFILL : I read somewhere today that – someone quoted as saying Trump creates his own weather system, which is true. So let’s assume the weather system, for whatever other reason, moves off. Who is in a position to rise? Say, Ben Carson is actually still very much in the top tier. Carly Fiorina, done well since the debate. John Kasich actually got the endorsement of that Alabama governor, where Donald Trump is tonight. Is there room?

MR. GERSTEIN : I think there’s definitely room for somebody to come up. I’m doubtful that it’s going to be Carson because I feel like, if you go through a period where Trump is rejected perhaps for some of the most outlandish things that he said, people will start to look at Carson, and he’s said similarly outlandish things. I mean, he talked this week I think about using drones to kill people that are waiting on the border or something, which sounds sort of like an East German kind of approach. So I don’t think he’s necessarily the one. I do think that you are more likely to see a Kasich or maybe even a Scott Walker figure emerge from the haze. But then the question, of course, will be, is Jeb Bush also there standing in the haze after Trump moves on? If, indeed, Trump moves on, because I’m not totally persuaded that’s going to happen anytime soon.

MS. IFILL : No, not soon.

MR. WILSON : I think Kasich is the value bet right now. I think he’s got the most room to grow over the long term. He has already presented a significant challenge to the other candidates who are making New Hampshire a must-win state – candidates like Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, people – candidates like that. He has – he has made this stand, by the way, by advertising early. He spent his – his super PAC has spent a little more than it –

MS. IFILL : That’s how he got onto the debate stage.

MR. WILSON : And it worked. And he got about 3 million bucks. He conveys that sort of authenticity without – well, without being completely polished. Sometimes that works against him, as it did at a big donor conference held by the Koch brothers network. He made some comments that were – that were interpreted as rude to a woman who was in the audience.

MS. IFILL : (Laughs.) People have actually accused him of being rude? I’ve never heard that.

MR. WILSON : Yes, shock and surprise. (Laughter.) But he’s coming across well now, and a lot of people in New Hampshire at least are reacting well to him. I think he’s got a good chance.

I think the person who needs to turn around the fastest is Scott Walker, though. He has seen his poll numbers plunge. Pre-debate he was at 9 percent; post-debate he’s at 3 percent nationally. Donald Trump has supplanted him in Iowa. So you’ve got two candidates, two governors on very different trajectories here, both of whom have to – well, one of whom has to turn it around, one of whom just has to capitalize on the opportunity –

MS. IFILL : And another debate next month, in about a month.

MR. O’KEEFE : Remember that in September and October the Senate actually has to do its work, and remember that Ted Cruz is still in the Senate. I think he’s someone who at least will have a moment.

MS. IFILL : Marco Rubio’s in the Senate, too. I mean –

MR. WILSON : Marco Rubio hasn’t been showing up for votes. (Laughter.)

MR. O’KEEFE : Exactly. And I think Cruz already has enough money and enough super PAC support to finance himself through March, when you have all those SEC primaries. All those SEC primaries – in Louisiana, Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia – are proportional. His goal is to siphon off just enough to leave him in the mix as someone who has to be heard. And if he successfully does that – if he can replace Trump as a sort of more establishment style but still renegade Republican presidential candidate, certainly I think he has a chance.

MS. IFILL : Certainly that’s his plan, and that’s –

MR. O’KEEFE : Yes. I mean, he’s been saying that Trump is renting his supporters, and there’s some validity to that. And remember, you’ve got an Iran vote, you’ve got a government shutdown threat. Those are tailor-made for Ted Cruz.

MS. IFILL : OK. Well, thank you all very much.

Thanks for watching as well. While you’re online check out everything else our panelists are covering in News You Need to Know, every day at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And we will see you next time on the Washington Week Webcast Extra .

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