And it doesn’t seem to have affected how they think of her: A new Gallup poll, taken between last Monday and Wednesday (the story broke last Monday), shows Clinton’s approval rating at 50 percent, with 39 percent disapproving, not too different from what it was before. That +11 net positive is higher than any of the Republican candidates with the exception of Ben Carson (who comes in at 20-8 approval, for a net of +12).
The fact that she’s so much better known than any of her potential Republican opponents highlights the difficulty of the task they face. When a candidate is new and unfamiliar, a negative story like this one can comprise a large part of what people know about them. For instance, what the average voter knows about Scott Walker is that he fights with unions (if they know even that). If we find out that he’s running a dog-fighting ring, he’d become the guy who fights with unions and runs a dog-fighting ring; the latter would loom very large in his public image. But even a real scandal about Hillary Clinton would be one of a hundred things voters know and think about her.
That isn’t to say that opinions of Clinton can’t change, because they’ve changed before. Over the last twenty years, her favorability ratings have waxed and waned according to how much she was perceived as a partisan political figure. It was high during her quieter times as First Lady, dipped when she ran for Senate, rose when she was quietly doing legislative work, dipped again when she ran for president, rose when she was Secretary of State, and has now settled back in what we might think of as the partisan zone of around 50 percent. The vast majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents view her favorably, while the vast majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents don’t. Any change will come only at the margins.
Right now, both Clinton and her detractors are probably thinking there’s something unfair about this email story. Clinton probably thinks it’s been overblown, just like so many fake scandals she’s suffered through before, while her opponents probably think the public isn’t taking it as seriously as they should. There are ways in which they may both have a point.
Consider that when the story broke, many in the media justified the blanket coverage it received on the basis that it “plays into a narrative” — in other words, before they could determine whether it had any merit, they would run with it because it dovetailed with stories of the past.
But in fact, there’s another narrative at work. It’s a narrative in which she or her husband get accused of something, it gets a lot of coverage, Republicans express outrage, and then in the end it turns out to be somewhere between unimportant and completely meaningless, both substantively and politically. The public is quite familiar with that narrative, too.
Does that mean she’ll get off relatively easy for things that would torpedo a different politician’s candidacy? It could. But right or wrong, there will be an awfully high bar to clear before a controversy has a real impact on what the voters think of her.