Is Hillary Clinton strong? Or are her opponents weak?

Hillary Clinton is a huge frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination -- a bigger frontrunner than we have seen in any recent presidential election.

But does Clinton's big early lead say more about her or about her little-known field of would-be challengers?

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll suggests the latter factor has plenty to do with it.

The poll, as with basically every other poll, shows that Clinton leads the Democratic presidential primary with upwards of 60 percent of the vote. People were given the option of both a more conservative generic Democrat and a more liberal generic Democrat, and Clinton still takes 63 percent. (She was at 69 percent against a field of actual candidates in last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll.)

But where things get interesting is when CNN also asked Democratic primary voters whether they are enthusiastic about Clinton.

In this case, about equal numbers said they would be "enthusiastic" (41 percent) and "satisfied but not enthusiastic" (42 percent). An additional 15 percent said they would either "dissatisfied" or "upset."

Republicans might look at these figures and get excited. After all, only 41 percent of Democratic-leaning voters say they are enthusiastic about a Clinton candidacy. And about one-third of Clinton supports aren't "enthusiastic."

But if you look back at 2008 polling, this isn't all that unusual -- and in fact, Clinton's arguably in better position today than she was back then.


Clinton's numbers on this question are slightly better than they were at the beginning of the 2008 election, when 39 percent were "enthusiastic" and 21 percent weren't happy.

Gallup has also asked a variation of the enthusiasm question over the years. While CNN asks people whether they will be satisfied or enthusiastic about a candidate, Gallup asked whether they'll be enthusiastic or  will be mostly be voting against the other party's nominee.

During the 2012 election, Republicans were clearly not all that enthusiastic about their potential nominees, with a plurality saying their vote was against Obama.

Enthusiasm1

But this wasn't the case on the Democratic side, where majorities were prepared to vote enthusiastically for both Clinton and President Obama if they emerged as the Democratic nominee.

Enthusiasm2

In other words, Clinton's middling "enthusiasm" number is probably a little bit oversold. Given there's not even an official presidential campaign yet, it's not all that surprising that people aren't enthusiastic about voting for someone who might or might not even run.

The numbers do suggest, though, that enthusiasm for Clinton isn't all that much higher than it was four years ago -- at least not as much as her massive lead in the Democratic primary field might suggest.

Indeed, there's a much bigger gap between those who say they are enthusiastic about Clinton and those who say they will actually vote for her than there was when CNN tested the same question in 2007 and 2008.

ClintonEnthusiasm

People clearly like Clinton, but the fact that a huge chunk of her support isn't enthusiastic suggests that they could be pulled toward another candidate if such a candidate were to emerge.

As of now, though, the other potential Democratic candidates just don't have the same kind of name recognition, and basically nobody thinks the field includes the second coming of Obama (the candidate). So Clinton's lead is real and could hold steady once the race begins. She's clearly quite strong.

But you can bet that if there was a well-known and well-liked opponent -- it could be Vice President Biden, but polls suggest he isn't seen as very presidential -- Clinton's lead would likely be significantly smaller than it is today.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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