Mellman: Of emails and image

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We’re accustomed to the trope that this year’s presidential election featured the two most unpopular candidates in history.

It’s true, but it was not foreordained, at least not for Hillary Clinton, who, not so long ago, was the most popular public official in the country. However, her image was badly damaged by the widely misinterpreted, and massively overhyped, email story.

{mosads}During her service as secretary of State, Clinton averaged 64 percent favorable in Gallup polling, and she left her Cabinet position with that same 64 percent favorable, compared to just 31 percent with an unfavorable view.

We don’t have a measurement for Donald Trump at the same time, but in April 2011, years before commencing his 2016 campaign, he was already widely disliked—a Fox News poll found just 33 percent expressing favorable views of Trump, while 57 percent were unfavorable.

Shortly after he announced his candidacy, an ABC/Washington Post Poll put his favorability at a similar 33 percent to 61 percent.

On Election Day, the exit polls tell us the numbers barely budged, with 38 percent favorable toward Trump while 60 percent were unfavorable.

In short, Trump was consistently disliked by most Americans.

Hillary Clinton’s image followed a very different trajectory.

As speculation swirled about her potential presidential campaign, she lost some of her Cabinet glow, but a year after her departure, and even longer after the Benghazi tragedy for which some demagogues tried to blame her, Gallup still found 59 percent with a favorable view of Clinton and 37 percent unfavorable.

Then came the email saga, which began with a March 2 New York Times story.

The impact was substantial.

Within a month, her favorables were underwater, with slightly more expressing unfavorable than favorable views. She was never net favorable again.

From March until late August, though, her ratings changed little.

Between late August and October, however, another explosion in negative views of Clinton occurred as her favorability ratings deteriorated by a net of 10 points.

What happened during this period?

While the negative coverage of Clinton continued, three things seemed different.

First, Clinton’s opponents, particularly Donald Trump, dominated the coverage, and each was trying to outdo the other in attacking Clinton’s character and integrity.

Second, Democrats started publicly sniping at the campaign’s handling of the issue.   

The New York Times signaled the start of the circular firing squad printing a story citing, “Interviews with more than 75 Democratic governors, lawmakers, candidates, and party members [which] laid bare a widespread bewilderment that Mrs. Clinton has allowed a cloud to settle over her candidacy—by using a private email server in the first place…and by not defusing those questions once and for all when the issue first emerged in March.”

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was typically blunt in his assessment: “They’ve handled the email issue poorly, maybe atrociously, certainly horribly. The campaign has been incredibly tone-deaf.”

Public attacks from one’s own team rarely help and often hurt.

Third, in September, Clinton apologized twice for her handling of the issue, with the press reporting the apology was offered under protest from the candidate.

I’m not suggesting that these developments were necessarily the cause of her deteriorating image, but there is no question that Clinton suffered significant additional and lasting damage during this period.

Before the email story broke she was about 10 points net favorable. For months after the story emerged, she was 2 points net unfavorable. By October 2015, she was 12 points net unfavorable.

It got worse—in the wake of the Republican convention she was 18 points net unfavorable.

But on Election Day, exit polls indicate she was the same 12 points underwater she had been in October 2015—importantly as a result of the email controversy.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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