Hillary Clinton's Slide in Polls Leaves Her Vulnerable

Michael Barone
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Posted: Jun 09, 2015 12:01 AM
Hillary Clinton's Slide in Polls Leaves Her Vulnerable
"Despite everything," the often interesting analyst Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate -- "everything" includes "the email controversy, foreign donors and the Clinton Foundation" -- "Hillary is in good shape." Good enough to leave her party "still positioned for victory."

Bouie is writing in response to the ABC News/Washington Post and CNN/ORC polls released last week, which show Hillary Clinton's favorable/unfavorable numbers plunging. ABC/WaPo puts them at 45-49 percent negative, the lowest since April 2008. CNN/ORC puts them at an almost identical 46-50 percent negative, the lowest since March 2003.

The most significant thing about these results is that Clinton evokes favorable feelings from less than 50 percent of respondents. Bouie is right to say that it is unrealistic to expect Clinton to be as favorably regarded as she was when she held the relatively unpolitical office of secretary of state. But it's a stretch to say that a candidate with 100 percent substantive recognition but less than 50 percent favorables is "positioned for victory." Such a candidate could win, especially if her opponent has exploitable flaws. But there is a nontrivial possibility she will lose.

The internals -- the responses to subsidiary questions -- point in that direction, as well. ABC/WaPo says that only 33 percent of voters approve of her relationship with the Clinton Foundation, that only 31 percent approve of her private email system, that only 33 percent approve of her conduct on Benghazi, Libya, and that between 48 and 55 percent believe these are legitimate issues.

It's not hard to imagine how Republican candidates can frame messages on these issues. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how they could fail to do so. And it's not likely that these issues will go away. A federal court has ordered the State Department to release batches of Clinton's emails every month through next January.

These issues -- Bouie's "everything" -- have taken a toll on Clinton's reputation. CNN/ORC tells us that only 49 percent of voters say she inspires confidence and that 50 percent say she doesn't; only 42 percent say she is honest and trustworthy, and 57 percent say she isn't.

Perhaps most dangerously for the Democratic candidate, only 47 percent of CNN/ORC respondents say she cares about people like them, while 52 percent say she doesn't. That roughly parallels the ABC/WaPo finding that 49 percent say she "understands" people like them and that 46 percent say she doesn't.

"Cares about people like me" has long been a characteristic on which Democratic candidates have an advantage over Republicans. The 2012 exit poll gave respondents four choices of candidate qualities that mattered most in deciding their vote. Majorities of those picking three -- "shares my values," "is a strong leader," "has a vision for the future" -- voted for Mitt Romney. But of those who picked "cares about people like me," only 18 percent voted for Romney, and 81 percent voted for Barack Obama.

Political scientist John Sides, writing on The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, notes that the decline in Clinton's numbers comes primarily from independents and her fellow Democrats; her standing among Republicans has been weak all along. And he notes, correctly, that strong partisans -- and an increasing number of voters are strong partisans, even if they like to tell pollsters they're independents -- tend to rally behind their party's nominee.

But how many will be inspired enough to actually vote? Clinton's weak numbers on the caring issue suggest that many potential Democratic voters lack that inspiration. So do the ABC/WaPo results, which show strongly favorable feelings toward Clinton among only 45 percent of Democrats, 39 percent of liberals and 39 percent of nonwhites. Among whites, still at least 70 percent of the electorate, the number is 16 percent.

As I pointed out in a previous column, Democratic turnout has not been surging upward in the Obama years; quite the contrary. Total Democratic turnout declined by about 3.5 million people between both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Clinton's numbers don't show her to be well-positioned to reverse that trend.

Democrats such as Bouie still seem complacent about Clinton's declining standing. They note that she still leads Republicans in the RealClearPolitics averages of recent polls. But Clinton runs under 50 percent against six of seven of those tested and at just 50 percent against the other. The Republicans have low substantive recognition and hence room to grow. Clinton, not so much.