Allies of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonHuckabee praises Clinton’s inauguration stop Sanders: This is a 'tough day for millions of Americans' Pelosi on Dems' approach to Trump: Look at Bush MORE are confident she will win the Democratic presidential nomination, but they are worried about one big thing: her likability problem in the general election.
Clinton has rebounded from a rough spring and summer with a strong fall. And while her eyes remain on the primary, she is already testing general election themes against her possible GOP opponents as they do battle in what could be a drawn-out Republican primary.
It’s a test she failed against then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama's legacy in Iraq Lewandowski: Trump ‘giving hope’ to Americans Live coverage of Trump's inauguration MORE (D-Ill.) in 2008. Throughout that cycle, Clinton stressed her “35 years of experience” while Obama pitched his “hope and change” message.
The likability test came up often on the campaign trail, most notably in the last New Hampshire debate that year when Clinton acknowledged Obama is “very likable.”
In a quip that may have cost him New Hampshire, Obama responded, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
Head-to-head 2016 matchups suggest vulnerabilities for Clinton, particularly against Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioTillerson met with top State official: report McCain ‘very concerned’ about Tillerson Top Dem: Don’t bring Tillerson floor vote if he doesn’t pass committee MORE, the Florida Republican who often talks about his love of professional football.
“Her challenge remains the same as it always has been — show voters who she is and reveal the person beneath the candidate,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University. “To win people’s trust and to generate enthusiasm, she has to let some of her character come out.”
“She has so many qualifications: experience, knowledge, partisan skill,” Zelizer said, adding that the likability factor “is what she needs to work on.”
Team Clinton spent a good part of 2015 highlighting the former first lady’s personality, which they call warm and effusive. Clinton aides, longtime confidants and friends have always maintained she is charming and funny, at least behind the scenes and out of the public spotlight.
But they say after years of public service — and attacks by her political opponents — she’s hesitant to let that side show.
Since Labor Day, after a New York Times story reported that Clinton would show more “humor and heart,” the candidate has made a concerted effort to highlight her lighter side.
Since then, she appeared on “Saturday Night Live” as a bartender named Val, allowed “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon to pull on her hair playfully and sat down with Lena Dunham of “Girls” fame. During those interviews and others, the former secretary of State came across as a yoga-loving woman who loves to go for long walks and keeps up with the Kardashians.
Those efforts may have helped. A Bloomberg poll released late last month showed that her likability has gone up among Democrats from 23 percent in September to 31 percent. A Clinton aide said Tuesday she has always been “remarkably durable” among Democrats.
However, Democratic strategists and even those Clinton loyalists say it’s the unplanned moments that have worked best for her.
In emails released by the State Department this year, including a new batch this week, voters got to know about Clinton’s favorite shows and that she was trying to learn how to use emojis.
“Ironically, she’s done well — maybe best — when she’s not controlling the message,” said a Democratic strategist who spoke on background. “Some of the most humanizing moments of the campaign have come from emails showing Clinton as a tea-drinking, yoga-practicing devoted watcher of ‘The Good Wife’ and ‘Homeland.’ ”
“The carefully crafted moments to ‘let Hillary be Hillary’ almost always backfire,” the strategist said.
In the wake of the Paris attacks last month, Clinton has shown that she is one of the few candidates with hands-on foreign policy experience because of her time at the State Department. While she has come under criticism for events such as the Benghazi attack, Team Clinton has used her tenure at Foggy Bottom to show her commanding grasp of matters around the globe.
Yet, Clinton allies fear that she has other weaknesses as well, particularly her lack of an overarching message.
“If the message they’re homing in on is the ‘fighter for the middle class,’ it would help if they were more explicit about it,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.
Clinton advisers believe she’ll get there, particularly in a general election when she will be challenged more than she has been in the Democratic primary.
In the meantime, Clinton’s likability factor is generating headlines. The Washington Post on Tuesday published a Zignal Labs word cloud that highlighted Clinton-related mentions on social media in November. The top words included “unethical,” “lies” and “corruption,” something Republicans highlighted right after its release.
“After all the campaign resets, carefully staged events and millions poured into TV ads, Hillary Clinton still finds herself disliked and not trusted by the American people,” said Jeff Bechdel, the communications director for America Rising, a Republican super-PAC. “That won’t change as long as new stories continue to emerge that raise questions about her private emails, questionable judgment and failed leadership.”
Thomas Nides, who served as deputy secretary of State under Clinton and is an informal adviser, said Republicans have “a hard time fighting her on substance, strength, confidence and discipline,” so questions about likability is “what they go to.”
“That’s not a successful strategy,” Nides said. “The more people get to know Hillary Clinton, the more they see her, the more visible she is, the more they like her.”
Nides added Clinton has had a “spectacular three months, arguably had a rougher middle of the year, but the campaign is in a very, very good place.”
“I’d rather be her than anyone else,” he said.