A new Washington Post/ABC News poll out today has some seemingly chilling numbers for Hillary Clinton. I think it’s probably an outlier, because when you see a dramatic shift in one poll without much practical explanation, and other polls aren’t yet showing the same thing, chances are it’s an anomaly. Even the best polls, of which ours is one, produce outliers sometimes — that’s just the nature of sampling.
But even so, the poll raises an important question for Clinton: While she’s probably going to become president, will she ever get a substantial majority of Americans to like her and approve of the job she’s doing?
I’m going to argue that the answer is no. But let’s start with this poll. I’ll let Aaron Blake explain:
Hillary Clinton hit her stride after the Democratic National Convention, riding to a double-digit lead over Donald Trump in some national and swing-state polls — her highest of the year.
As of today, though, Americans’ views of her just hit a record low.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Clinton, while 56 percent have an unfavorable one.
That’s the worst image Clinton has had in her quarter-century in national public life. Her previous low favorable rating this year was in July, when it was 42 percent, lower than any mark in historical Post-ABC polls except a few points in the 1990s when a large share of the public had no opinion of her. Her previous high for unfavorable views was in June, when 55 percent disliked Clinton.
Let’s put aside the question of whether this particular drop is real. We won’t know for sure until we get a whole group of polls showing the same thing. Either way, there’s no doubt that Clinton is unusually unpopular for a major-party nominee. The explanation many Republicans would offer is that it’s because she’s a terrible person who murders her political enemies, cleans her toilets with the American flag, and would punch your grandkids in the face if she got the chance. But let’s step back to look at the broad picture of Clinton’s popularity over time. Here’s a graph that Aaron included in his piece today:
She started off unpopular during the 1992 election, became popular at the beginning of her time as First Lady, then got unpopular after trying to reform health care, then got popular again over the time of her husband’s impeachment, then became unpopular when she ran for Senate, then was popular while she served in the Senate, then got really popular while she was secretary of state, then became unpopular again once she ran for president as the assumed and then actual Democratic nominee.
The most common explanation for this up-and-down movement — see Greg’s piece from last year for a more detailed view — is that the closer Clinton gets to partisan politics, the more unpopular she becomes. One reason for this is that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents may turn away from her. When she’s a relatively apolitical figure — like when she did low-profile First Lady things, when she was a wronged wife, or even when she was Secretary of State, then a healthy number of Republicans express approval of her and her overall ratings rise.
In the partisan context, Republicans are much more likely to think about her as an opponent or even an enemy than when she’s doing a job like secretary of state. As Libby Nelson pointed out back in July, the secretary of state almost always gets high approval ratings. We don’t know exactly why, but my guess is that from the public’s perspective the job is both high-profile and opaque, but in an uncontroversial way. They have little idea what the secretary does; all they see is him or her representing the United States and shaking hands with foreign leaders.
In the Post polls and others, Clinton’s approval ratings turned south in early 2015 — when she started running for president. When she’s a partisan figure, she’ll also be constantly attacked by Republicans and conservative media figures, and those steady reminders will make it unlikely that Republican voters will say they like her. This is something Clinton herself offers as an explanation for her low approval ratings, as she did in this interview:
There’s a lot of behavioral science that if you attack someone endlessly — even if none of what you say is true — the very fact of attacking that person raises doubts and creates a negative perspective. As someone Exhibit A on that — since it has been a long time that I’ve been in that position — I get that. I get it.
And it’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating.
And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up. So it seems to be part of the political climate now that is just going to have to be dealt with.
There’s another element that Clinton didn’t mention here but that she’s certainly aware of: There’s still a double standard for women in politics, which says that it’s unseemly for them to have ambition. That means it’s fine for her to do the job, but for her to seek a promotion immediately makes many people, especially those with “traditional” values, decide that there’s something about her they don’t like.
Today, she’s seeking the ultimate promotion. Does that mean that if she’s elected president and Americans see her just doing the job of president, she can get high approval ratings? Unfortunately for her, it doesn’t.
The first reason why is that we live in an extremely polarized time, in which no president of either party is going to get substantial approval from the other party’s voters. It didn’t used to be that way — until George W. Bush’s administration, the president’s approval from the opposite party would often be substantial. According to Gallup numbers, Ronald Reagan hit 40 percent approval among Democrats; Jimmy Carter got the same number at one point from Republicans; Bill Clinton even got 43 percent approval from Republicans.
But that’s no longer possible. Let’s look at Barack Obama. In the latest Gallup poll, Obama’s approval is at 53 percent, which for most presidents would be good but not great. In the contemporary environment, however, it’s fantastic. That’s because his approval among Republicans is at a mere 11 percent, around where it’s been for much of his time in office. As I’ve said many times, Obama could create 10 percent GDP growth, cure cancer, and save a bunch of orphans from a burning building, and nearly all Republicans would still say they don’t like him. Obama enjoyed a brief honeymoon upon getting elected, but only once since six months into his term — when Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 — did his approval among Republicans crack 20 percent, and that was only for a moment. In fact, Obama is the first president since polls were invented to have never gone above 25 percent approval with the opposing party, and I’m pretty sure Hillary Clinton would be the second.
So she would start with this baseline level of polarization. Add to that the fact that unless Earth gets attacked by aliens (and maybe not even then), there will never be a truly bipartisan moment in Washington during Clinton’s presidency. Never — not for a week, not for a day, not for a second. There may be times when Republicans agree with the Clinton administration on a particular bill because their interests align (such things do sometimes happen), but even at those times Republicans aren’t going to be grasping Clinton’s hand in mutual joy and triumph. They’ll always have an incentive to portray it as either (1) We rolled her, and forced her to do what we wanted, or (2) We hate agreeing with her, but in this case we had to do it, as distasteful as it might be.
That’s because Republicans will have to show their own constituencies that they’re fighting Clinton tooth and nail every day, as part of a self-reinforcing cycle: the members of Congress send the message to their constituents that the president is evil, and the constituents demand that their representatives oppose the president without any hint of compromise.
Among the many things this campaign has accomplished is to solidify a Republican narrative that they will continually reinforce about her if she’s president. It says that she’s venal, dishonest, rotten to the core, and literally nothing she does is for anything but the worst reasons. Presuming they hold on to at least one house of Congress (or lose them and then get them back in 2018), there will be constant investigations of the administration meant to prove just how corrupt she and those who work for her are. The attacks will be unceasing, because they know that keeping her mired in scandal (even if the scandals are invented) is the best way to hamstring her, keep her administration from achieving policy objectives they disagree with, and increase the likelihood of future Republican victories.
So if Clinton does a terrific job as president, she might manage to get her approval all the way up to 50 percent or so, which would be made up of almost all Democrats, a majority of independents, and a handful of Republicans. But it probably won’t ever go much higher than that.