The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton’s favorable rating drops below 50 percent. And yet she still leads big.

Hillary Clinton listens before delivering remarks at an event in New York on Nov. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Hillary Clinton is still leading all comers in early polls of the 2016 presidential race. But these days, that has much more to do with the Republicans' weaknesses than with her strengths.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll is the latest to show Clinton's numbers continuing their steady erosion since she stepped down as secretary of state. The new poll has her favorable rating at a pedestrian 49 percent, compared to 46 percent unfavorable. It's the first time her favorable rating has dropped below 50 percent since April 2008, when she conceded the Democratic nomination for president to Barack Obama.

Much of Clinton's decline, predictably, is because Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have begun to sour on her as she has re-entered the political arena. While 31 percent of Republicans last year liked Clinton, just 12 percent do so today.

But there is also evidence of less-partisan voters straying from Clinton. Among Democratic-leaning independents, 84 percent approved of Clinton last year. Now, that number is 65 percent.

[Resolved: Hillary Clinton is a normal, polarizing politician — again]

Of course, even as Clinton's image numbers have declined, her lead over her potential GOP opponents hasn't. She still leads Jeb Bush 54 percent to 40 percent in a prospective match-up, and her leads are even bigger against Ted Cruz (58-37), Scott Walker (55-38) and Marco Rubio (55-38). Those are all on a par with polling going back many months.

The reason? While Clinton isn't that well-liked anymore, these Republicans are in significantly worse shape. Bush, the former Florida governor, has an unfavorable rating of 53 percent, versus just 33 percent favorable, Rubio is 14 points underwater (24 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable), and Cruz is 20 points underwater (25-45). Only Walker's favorable rating (23 percent) is even close to his unfavorable rating (30 percent).

And here's the real kicker: While Clinton's favorable rating among independents is down to just 44 percent, she takes 49 percent of their votes in a match-up with Bush. Among moderates, 51 percent have a favorable opinion of Clinton, but 58 percent vote for her in a match-up with Bush. And she does even better against the other Republicans.

[Full poll results]

As long as the GOP candidates are losing voters who don't much like Clinton, they'll have a tough time beating her -- even if she's hardly the popular figure she was as secretary of state.

Of course, this is all extremely early, and there's still, you know, an actual campaign to be run. Opinions of all these Republicans are going to be far less hardened than they are of Clinton and have more room for improvement.

But this is where we begin.