By Dr. David Hill - 02/18/14 07:45 PM EST
Last fall I read an analysis of a poll, conducted by Franklin & Marshall College, that used the survey’s findings to anoint Hillary Clinton the “most popular politician in Pennsylvania.”
Despite this glittering title, the bar for this Keystone moniker seemed surprising low. Her favorable rating was just 57 percent. The lynchpin of the enthusiastic analysis was ostensibly her “very favorable” numbers. At 38 percent, her most admiring slice of the electorate was said to be within a single percentage point of President Obama’s 39 percent “very favorable” apex, in his post-first-inauguration days.
In nationwide polls conducted by well-respected public pollsters over the past four months, Clinton’s favorables have varied weirdly widely, from only 51 percent in two polls (NBC/Marist and Quinnipiac) to 59 percent in a CNN/ORC study and 58 percent in an ABC/Washington Poll survey. More recently, CNN/ORC asked for retrospective job approval of her performance as secretary of State, which showed 62 percent approval.
That is quite a broad range of positive sentiment, suggesting to me that context is a factor in her ratings. Responses to mentions of her must hinge, in part, on other questions being read in the same poll, headlines driving the news on the day of the poll, and other random things. In short, her numbers are not so rock-solid that they stand impervious to all else. In short, her poll standing may be soft and subject to wide fluctuations going forward, depending on circumstance.
Here’s an example of how her image gets influenced by context. If I ask respondents whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Clinton after questions about her days as first lady, senator and secretary of State, that is a retrospective evaluation. But if I ask about her favorability after questions about presidential issues and topics, placing her in the milieu of her future candidacy, I might get a different perspective on her popularity. A Joe Biden fan will gush about her in retrospect but short-sell her prospectively.
Perhaps because of this past-future dichotomy, I have often observed that retired longtime politicians who are thrust back into a new race often peak on the day before they announce. The idea of a Clinton comeback is better than the reality of a Clinton presidential bid.
This is the cruel truth. The paid clappers and feminist chorus chanting “Run Hillary, Run!” will start to turn on her the day she announces — not completely, but they will feel some ownership of her candidacy that empowers them to second-guess and nitpick her every statement and action. Too much Bill Clinton on the campaign trail or too little? New haircut or not? Too much foreign policy talk or too little talk of the poor? Good campaign team or not? Too much time in the East or too little time in middle America’s small towns? Old bag or not?
These nits, both big and small, can become the death by a thousand cuts.
Some of Clinton’s pillars of support could change this time around, too. I am guessing that she would do better with African-Americans who owe her a make-good after abandoning her (and Bill) in 2008 for one of their own, Barack Obama. Similarly, she might do better in the polls with younger voters, who followed Obama, then the new guy, in 2008.
But at the other end of the age continuum, I expect many seniors — men for sure and possibly some women — to temper their support. They don’t have the energy to be president. How could she?
Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.