Symbolic appeal must be unraveled

Too many Republican strategists are girding for the wrong fight. They are acting and talking like we’ll be facing Leona Helmsley, the notorious “Queen of Mean,” when our nominee faces off against Hillary Clinton. But that’s not the Hillary we’ll be confronting next November. Before this is over, Hillary’s candidacy will have more in common with Amelia Earhart’s first trans-Atlantic flight or Sally K. Ride’s first trip into space than Helmsley’s heartlessness.

Republicans who are eager to face Clinton completely fail to grasp the crucial role that symbolism plays in politics. Hillary bids to be the first-ever woman president of the United States, and that’s a big deal. It will overshadow every other issue and image in this campaign.

The miscalculations about Hillary’s candidacy are partially a byproduct of a preoccupation with polls. Some Republicans, particularly Karl Rove, have made much of Hillary’s negative or unfavorable ratings in Gallup surveys. But a trio of Gallup Poll analysts, responding specifically and assertively to Rove’s public statements, recently reviewed data showing that politicians can reverse negative perceptions. They also documented the volatility of Hillary’s own ratings, pointing out that her numbers improved after release of her autobiography in 2003.

It is curious that so many poll-driven pundits overlook the fact that Clinton’s negatives are clustered mainly among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who are unlikely to vote for her in any circumstance. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, Hillary’s unfavorable ratings are modest and manageable. So it comes down to the pure independents and ticket-splitters. What do they think? In April, Gallup reported that among the 755 “pure independents” they interviewed in 2005 through 2007, Hillary had a 46 percent favorable rating, 43 percent unfavorable, and 12 percent no opinion. Too close to call, but ripe for symbolic exploitation.

I caught a glimpse of Hillary’s manipulation of the first-woman symbolism during her recent interview with David Letterman. If you haven’t seen this interview, and you think of Hillary only as a Leona or a liberal, you should do yourself a favor and watch it.

Letterman gets around to asking about her being the first woman president. One of them mumbles “overdue” and Hillary opens up. First she tells about all the parents who bring their young daughters to meet her. That’s powerful enough, but she doesn’t stop there. She starts telling about elderly women who come up to shake her hand and say they were born before women could vote and they hope to live long enough to see a woman president. The crowd swoons.

For floating, independent voters, especially women and the 12 percent who haven’t formed an opinion of Hillary, the symbolism of electing the first woman is powerful, especially when so many male politicians have let them down. Maybe this time it will be different, they can muse.

What are Republicans to do in the face of such a powerful symbolic premise for our likely opponent? For one thing, potential Republican nominees need to start thinking hard about female running mates. At the very least, they can offer the first female vice president. That might be enough of a symbolic benefit for independents and ticket-splitters worried whether they can afford another Clinton presidency.

Republicans also need to contemplate counter-symbols that are big enough to sway this election. For example, Hillary might represent to many Americans the negative symbols of nepotism or hereditary monarchy. Swing voters and independents dissatisfied with the recent Bush family hegemony might not be ready to reenlist for the Clinton family redux. Partisan check and balance on a Democratic Congress will be another powerful symbol for our nominee to leverage.


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