A week ago, Hillary Clinton and her surrogates started to pivot to a more positive, issue-oriented pitch in an effort to transform what they thought was a certain, decisive victory into a mandate for governing. But once the impact of James Comey’s  announcement became apparent, it was time to forget about issues. The Democrats switched back to an all-out assault on Donald Trump’s character and fitness for the presidency. Which brings us back to where perhaps this election was probably always going: It is nothing less than a referendum on the character of two people much of the country doesn’t like. The only question that remains to be answered is, which one is disliked the most?

Given that we are living in a hyper-partisan moment in American political history, many Democrats and Republicans hate the other party and its standard-bearer so much that they are unwilling to consider that the flaws of their own candidate are also disqualifying. The one thing that seems to unite both sides is their disbelief that anyone in their right mind could vote for the candidate of the other party.

This is a clash that will be resolved by the voters’ judgment about which kind of bad character is the worst. Yet the focus on Trump’s personal conduct and statements and Clinton’s ethics ignore a lot of other good reasons to vote against both of them.

Trump’s ignorance of policy and his embrace of isolationist, protectionist, and nativist stances as well as his open contempt for the democratic process will have a much greater negative impact on the country if he is elected than the fact that he can’t go a week without insulting someone who has irritated his very thin skin or that no woman may be safe with him.

Similarly, the taint of corruption that attaches itself to all that Hillary and Bill Clinton do and their self-righteous sense of entitlement are not as important as her unquestioning embrace of the discredited notion that more government spending is the answer to solving all the country’s problems—to say nothing of her willingness to appoint judges who will shred the Constitution in order to advance liberal social policies.

But this election won’t be decided by Trump’s willingness to abandon American allies and appease Russia any more than it will be by the laundry list of new entitlements Clinton will try to saddle the nation with. Instead, it will simply be a test of whether the nation’s sensibilities are more offended by a bad man or a dishonest woman.

As the fluctuating polls indicate, the answer to that question isn’t as obvious as many Democrats and Republicans think. Whenever the focus is on Trump, Clinton’s lead increases. Whenever it is on Clinton, Trump creeps closer to her.

As it stands now, the Democrats’ built-in advantage in the Electoral College and the benefits they derive from demographic shifts in the population are being offset to some extent by the attention given Clinton’s ethical issues. The deluge of Clinton campaign ads that seek to put Trump’s character flaws on display may be enough to allow her to overcome last Friday’s setback. But if she wins, it will not be due to her strengths but because, despite Comey’s gift, a sleazy vulgarian is bound to lose a character referendum to a mendacious careerist.

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