Today The Washington Post ran a story about the Democratic presidential front-runner headlined, "Even supporters agree: Clinton has weaknesses as a candidate. What can she do?" It was built around these two paragraphs:
More than a dozen Clinton allies identified weaknesses in her candidacy that may erode her prospects of defeating Donald Trump, including poor showings with young women, untrustworthiness, unlikability and a lackluster style on the stump. Supporters also worry that she is a conventional candidate in an unconventional election in which voters clearly favor renegades.
“I bring it down to one thing and one thing only, and that is likability,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who has conducted a series of focus groups for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Oomph. The more things change and all that.
Two sets of numbers from a Post-ABC News national poll in March starkly reveal the yawning gap between people who like/relate to Clinton and those who think she has the experience to do the job. Asked whether Clinton understands the "problems of people like you," 49 percent said she does while 50 percent said she does not. But, when asked whether she has the "right experience" to be president, two thirds said she does while just 33 percent said she does not.
Now, compare those numbers to what I believe was the single most important question in the 2012 exit poll. Of the one in five voters who said a candidate who "cares about people like you" was the most important trait in deciding their vote, Obama beat Mitt Romney 81 percent to 18 percent. The election was, literally, won the backs of people who felt that Obama "got" them in a way Romney did not.
What do all of those numbers tell us? Something we have long known: The vote for president — in the primary and, especially, the general election — is about much more than how long your resume is or the policy positions you stake out in the course of a campaign or a political life.
The vote for president is a "feel" vote. Do you think this person is someone who understands you and the problems (and hopes and dreams) you have for yourself and your children? Can you imagine this person being president for the next four years? Could you have dinner with this person? Would it be fun?
As I wrote last week about Jon Stewart's critical comments about Clinton, it's on those questions that she has always struggled — and will continue to do so. Most people — including many of her "allies" quoted in the Post story — are simply unable to figure out who Clinton actually is. Where does "Hillary Clinton, public figure" stop and "Hillary Clinton regular person" start? Or are they the same thing? Is this quest for Clinton to show more of who she really is doomed to failure because who she really is is a wonky, somewhat awkward figure who has lived so long in the public eye that there is no persona but her public one?
(Side note: There's also a broader question about whether a candidate's likability should matter and whether there is more of a focus on whether Clinton is "likable enough" because she is the first woman who will be the presidential nominee for one of the two major parties. But that's for another piece.)
All of these questions are problems for Clinton. They are why Republicans, rightly, believed at the start of this election that they had a very good chance of winning back the White House with her as the Democratic nominee. Clinton has struggled for the past eight years to convince voters that she is a regular person who can connect with them. It seems unlikely she will be able to solve that problem in the five-plus months left before the 2016 general election.
She probably won't have to in order to win though. Why? Two words: Donald Trump.
If Clinton has a likability problem, Trump has a likability epidemic.
That same March Post-ABC poll showed just 30 percent of respondents felt favorably toward Trump while 67 percent had an unfavorable view — including a stunning 56 percent who felt "strongly" unfavorably toward the real estate mogul. (Clinton's numbers were 46 favorable/52 unfavorable.) Just one in four (27 percent) said that Trump was honest and trustworthy. Twenty six percent said Trump understood the problems of people like them; 26 percent also said he had the right experience to be president.
Remember that presidential elections are (mostly) binary choices. If you don't want A, you have to pick B. Clinton's struggles to connect matter a lot in a vacuum. They matter a whole lot less when she is running against a candidate who is even less liked and is seen as even less relatable. And that candidate is Trump.
Congratulations, Republicans. You picked the one guy who takes Clinton's likability issues off the table. That's quite a feat.