Signs of Hillary Clinton’s Troubles, in Charts
Hillary Rodham Clinton was inevitably going to lose some of her aura once she started campaigning. The high favorability ratings she earned as secretary of state simply weren’t sustainable.
But over the last two months, the steady and expected erosion of her ratings has surprisingly accelerated. Her ratings are now lower than they were in 2007 or 2008, or at any point in her political career.
Does Vice President Joe Biden have an opening? Mrs. Clinton still has tremendous advantages in the Democratic primaries and remains a clear favorite for the nomination. She commands overwhelming support from the party’s elite, which has given her a big financial advantage, attracted a robust national organization full of the party’s most talented operatives, and deterred mainstream challengers. Her policy views are right in the middle of the Democratic Party; even if there is room to challenge her from the left in Iowa and New Hampshire, there is little room to do so in the rest of the nation’s primaries.
But Mrs. Clinton’s decline now extends beyond what I, at least, would have expected. It is still not enough to call her advantage into question, but it suggests that many analysts might have underestimated the resonance of the controversy surrounding her private email account and server at the State Department. And it creates a real quandary for Mr. Biden.
For the first time in Mrs. Clinton’s two decades in national politics, more Americans see her unfavorably than favorably. Her net-favorability rating — now a dismal minus-10 or perhaps worse — is at least 15 points worse than it was at this time in 2008.
She hasn’t lost ground only among Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, but also among Democratic voters. I don’t have a comprehensive data set of Mrs. Clinton’s old favorability ratings among Democrats, but a quick survey of polls from August and September 2007 showed Mrs. Clinton with 80 percent to 88 percent favorability ratings among Democrats. Today, they range from 65 percent to 77 percent. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given how far her national ratings have slipped.
It is hard to argue that these losses were inevitable, given that they now place her beneath where she was in the last 2008 primary — a contest she entered with far less support from voters and party elites than she held at the beginning of this year. They raise the possibility that political scientists and data journalists — including this one — have underestimated the significance of the email affair, which is the simplest — if unproven — explanation for those losses.
The email controversy is unusual. There has been no indictment or even allegations of criminality. But whether it’s a true scandal or not, by now it has all of the trappings of one: generating an F.B.I. investigation, congressional hearings, an aide’s pleading of the Fifth Amendment, lawyerly explanations about the deletion of documents. It has dragged on for months and fits into a longstanding narrative of the Clintons’ trouble with honesty.
The faster decline in Mrs. Clinton’s standing began in mid-July, when the F.B.I. began an investigation into the release of classified information in her email account. It was also about the time when Mr. Biden began investigating entering the race.
Most data journalists and political scientists had argued that the email revelations were just another muddled, politicized dispute that would quickly split the electorate along partisan lines. But recent surveys — like an ABC/Washington Post survey from this week — show that a significant minority of Democrats (29 percent to 33 percent, depending on the question) disapprove of her handling of questions about her email account, think she broke government regulations or think she tried to cover up the facts.
Perhaps all of these voters would have opposed her in the primary anyway. Mrs. Clinton, after all, still has a big lead in national polls. It’s no longer a record-setting advantage. But it’s a big one, and it’s underpinned by all of the fundamentals that help determine the outcome of the primary contest. This time, she won’t be facing a candidate, like Barack Obama, who has the potential to peel away a big part of her coalition.
Party elites haven’t begun to leave her candidacy either. Over the last month, Mrs. Clinton has rolled out still more endorsements. Reports from a meeting of the Democratic National Committee suggested that few party members were itching to jump ship.
So if the damage is done, if saying “sorry” marks the moment when the controversy begins to fade, if the investigation doesn’t take any future turns for the worse, then Mrs. Clinton could remain in a strong position to win the nomination. She could probably recover ground — both in terms of her ratings and in the early primary states. The “Clinton Comeback” narrative, almost as familiar as the scandal-prone one, would emerge in a matter of time.
But it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that the email investigation — or its effect on public opinion — could take a new turn.
Mrs. Clinton’s poll numbers — both in the Democratic primary or among all Americans — can’t afford to fall too much further before party leaders would justifiably begin to reassess her candidacy.
That creates a real problem for Mr. Biden. He seems genuinely conflicted about whether to run for president, even setting aside his grief and anguish after the death of his son Beau.
He’s considering a run at a highly unusual moment. He would be well positioned to capitalize if Mrs. Clinton faltered. But he would probably lose by a wide margin if the race stayed as it is. He might not win even one state. He would lack the resources and elite support necessary to build a competitive national campaign at this stage, and there just might not be an opening.
But one thing is clear: He doesn’t have much more time to wait and see if the Clinton campaign founders.