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A Predictable Decline in Hillary Clinton’s Popularity

The controversies surrounding the I.R.S.’s targeting of conservative groups and the executive branch’s handling of last year’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya, have yet to have much impact on President Obama’s approval ratings (although some slight decline may be hidden by an improved economic mood). But Mr. Obama’s former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, appears to be have been more affected.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Friday found Mrs. Clinton’s favorability rating declining to 52 percent, from 61 percent in February. The decrease was considerably more modest in a CNN poll released earlier this month, with Mrs. Clinton’s favorability rating decreasing to 61 percent from 63 percent in March. Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton’s favorability scores had hovered in the mid-60s for much of the past two years — and those lofty ratings appear to be a thing of the past.

So, are Americans carefully parsing through the details of the Benghazi attack — and finding Mrs. Clinton more culpable than Mr. Obama?

Probably not. Instead, the decline in her ratings was likely just a matter of time — and if the Benghazi hearings had not triggered it, something else would have.

Here’s what I said about Mrs. Clinton’s popularity in an article in December — in which I noted that her favorability scores have waxed and waned considerably over the years:

[If] Mrs. Clinton runs for president in 2016, one thing is almost certain: she won’t be as popular as she is right now. Recent polls show that about 65 percent of Americans take a favorable view of Mrs. Clinton, while only about 30 percent have a negative one. Those are remarkably high numbers for a politician in an era when many public officials are distrusted or disliked.

But part of the reason for Mrs. Clinton’s high numbers is that, as secretary of state, she has remained largely above the partisan fray that characterizes elections and fights over domestic policy.

Over the course of her long career, the public’s views of Mrs. Clinton have shifted along with her public role. When she has been actively engaged in the hand-to-hand combat that characterizes election campaigns and battles in Congress, her favorability ratings have taken a hit, only to recover later. …

The theme is that a politician’s favorability ratings are a function, to a large degree, of the extent to which the other political party, and perhaps also the news media, feels as though they have license to criticize her.

It’s easy to be popular when nobody is criticizing you — and there was a long period, from the closing stages of the 2008 campaign through most of her tenure as secretary of state, when Republicans had little interest in attacking Mrs. Clinton directly. Now that Republicans have chosen to engage her again, her numbers are coming down. The largest decline in her ratings, as Ed Kilgore noted, has come from Republican voters, with a more modest decline among independents and almost none at all among Democrats. This is what happens when a politician returns to being in the partisan fray after having drifted above it for some time.

But if Mrs. Clinton were to run for president in 2016, Republicans would undoubtedly have found any number of other ways to criticize her — from her policy proposals, to concerns about her age or health, to gaffes that she might make on the campaign trail, to controversies recycled from her tenure as secretary of state.

Mrs. Clinton, if she runs in 2016, is highly unlikely to win by the double-digit margins that some polls have given her over prospective Republican opponents. But the same would have been true regardless of Benghazi. The main circumstances in which a presidential candidate wins by double digits are when that candidate is an incumbent running in a time of exceptional economic growth, or when the other party’s incumbent is viewed as having performed terribly. Or, every now and then, the opposing candidate might be viewed as extreme or incompetent, and swing voters will feel as though they have no real choice.

But the opposition generally nominates reasonably good candidates when there is no incumbent running. Much of the incumbent advantage in American politics comes because of the deterrent factor — the opposition party figures that an incumbent will be difficult to beat, and so their stronger candidates wait for a better opportunity. This, however, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: one of the reasons that incumbents win so often is because they don’t often draw strong challengers. When parties nominate candidates against incumbents who have held their seats for many years — as Democrats did in 2006 with their “50-state strategy,” or Republicans did in races for the Congress in 2010 — they are rewarded reasonably often.

Mrs. Clinton, to be clear, would not have been an incumbent – but it’s possible that Republicans would have erred by giving her the same type of deference that is normally afforded to one. (Republicans like Newt Gingrich had talked about how difficult it might be to beat Mrs. Clinton.) So while the reality is that this decline in her ratings was predictable, Mrs. Clinton could be harmed by losing her perceived “inevitability.”

That’s also not to say that Mrs. Clinton would be merely an average candidate. Her resume, her experience, her fund-raising abilities and her status as the first prospective female president could all be advantages. But they might amount to her running a couple of points better than a “generic” Democrat and probably not much more than that – rather than her defying the laws of partisan gravity in a deeply divided country.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.