Two excellent analysts — Nate Cohn and Nate Silver — have both this week tackled the question of Hillary Rodham Clinton as a general election candidate and her general popularity. Both make the very sensible points that basically boil down to, in Cohn’s words: she’s no Dwight Eisenhower, and we shouldn’t really expect her (as Silver says) to do any better than any generic Democrat if she’s the nominee in 2016.
The big story here is, I think, that candidates just aren’t all that important in presidential elections — and very much less important than a lot of press coverage would have it. For the most part, Democrats wind up liking the Democratic candidate, Republicans wind up liking the Republican candidate, and (perhaps most importantly) both sides wind up absolutely despising the other side’s nominee.
Ike was, from what we know, the biggest exception to that story, at least in the postwar era. But that’s what conquering Europe will get you; there’s really never been anyone of similar stature since then. Moreover, partisanship in the electorate was probably not as intense in the 1950s as it is now, and what’s certainly true is that far more people get information from the partisan-aligned press.
That’s not to say candidates can’t matter at all. One or two percentage points can be enough to turn an election; that’s certainly within the plausible range of the effects of candidate image. There are also plausible regional effects which could, at the margins, flip states in the electoral college. It’s also true that candidates who wind up with a reputation for being out of the ideological mainstream can be penalized by voters, and while it’s not entirely clear how such reputations are constructed, it’s probably safe to say that Clinton is unlikely to wind up with one in 2016 (at least among potential swing voters).
But overall? The real questions about Clinton have to with whether her strong polling right now predicts an easy nomination contest for her if she runs. And for that, we need to speculate, because there simply are not good precedents for her position right now, and no way to know whether we can extrapolate from previous cases.
For the general election, however, what’s really going to matter is whether it’s a good year to run as a Democrat or a good year to run as a Republican. Which candidate is on the ballot is unlikely to be nearly as important.