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Hillary’s tough row to hoe

I keep having this recurring experience. I’m on an airplane and the corporate road-warrior seated next to me asks what business I’m in. At first, I try to give as little information as possible: “I’m a political consultant.” But then the passenger probes this terse reply. “Is that with one particular party?” Quite often, before I can reply, this is followed by, “I hope it’s the Republicans.” (Seriously, no one ever says, “I hope you’re a Democrat.”)

Anyway, once I confess my Republican affiliation, the businessman seated next to me will say, “I hope you guys are doing something about Hillary Clinton. I’m afraid she’s going to win because my wife seems ready to vote for her. Her friends are going to vote for her.”

You’ve heard about Desperate Housewives. These gentlemen are Hopeless Husbands. Even after I try to provide a few reassuring predictions about Hillary’s coming swan dive, they sniff with an air of disbelief at everything I just said and go back to reading their Wall Street Journals. They seem hopelessly resigned to having a new Clinton in the White House.

I’m not saying that Clinton won’t eventually prevail, but saying that she’s an overwhelming favorite before 2007 is half over is just way too pessimistic.

My first inkling that Hillary’s candidacy might not be all that it portends came during several academic-type conferences I have attended since the 2006 elections. These are the type of conclaves where Republicans and Democrats are invited to reflect on the last election and look ahead to the future.

What surprised me about many Democrats’ remarks in these sessions, even before the emergence of Barack Obama and other Democratic alternatives, was the surprisingly open and candid loathing that more than a few Democrats expressed for Clinton’s candidacy. You might expect some Democratic consultants to express doubts about a frontrunner privately at a late-night dinner after the public session, but you don’t expect them to publicly harangue her and her team from the podium. Usually that sort of sniping only comes out after a couple glasses of wine. But I was hearing it at high noon, fueled by nothing stronger than bottled artesian water.

One of these Democratic operatives first pointed out to me that despite Hillary’s universal name recognition, she has almost always struggled in trial heat poll balloting to break the simple majority threshold of 50 percent. And that’s true whether we’re talking about the Democratic primary or the general election match-ups. Over and over, a majority of Americans have said they know Hillary Clinton and they’re not going to vote for her. Yet because she gets a plurality of support in some polls (or that the respondents’ wives like her), a few armchair pundits seem ready to say she’s going to win.

Well, not so fast. A Gallup Poll published several weeks ago seemed to say the dissident Democratic consultants may be on to something in dissing the former first lady. Gallup acknowledged Clinton’s fundraising successes and declared her “the best known candidate of either party,” but then went on to reflect on her lack of likeability. In fact, Gallup pegs Clinton’s unfavorable ratings at 52 percent, well in excess of her 45 percent favorable. The Gallup trend data show Hillary’s favorable rating plunging among Democrats, independents and Republicans. Among younger and unmarried females, supposedly her bellwether coalition partners, her favorables had declined by double-digit numbers in the latest national samples.

Before we hand Hillary the keys to the White House, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on these hard numbers. This campaign may be a tougher row for her to hoe than many seem to realize.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.