When discussing Hillary Clinton and her perceived position as a “shoe-in" for the Democratic nomination, someone will invariably chime in "yeah, well she looked like a sure thing in 2008 too, and look what happened there." Even the most fervent supporters of the former Secretary of State are anxious about her prospects, worried that they will once again get their hearts broken.
It’s time to take a deep breath and take a look at the numbers. Hillary Clinton may not be the nominee in 2016, but it won't be because she lost the nomination to a more liberal Democrat. And, while she’s by no means a lock to win the White House in 2016, voters’ perceptions of her are much better than they were in 2008.
One of the bigger dangers in politics is the tendency to over-learn the lesson of a previous campaign. History is indeed instructive, and losing is a very important driver of innovation and introspection. That said, each election cycle is unique. What mattered to voters in one year may be practically irrelevant to them a few years later (think terrorism).
For Hillary Clinton, traits that were once considered liabilities are no longer as toxic. In 2008, for example, a sizable chunk of voters in Pew polling thought that being a woman would hurt her chances to win. A majority of voters also found the former Senator and First Lady “hard to like.” Today, voters find her more “likable” and fewer think her gender works against her.
Hillary Clinton is “Hard To Like”
|Date||Hard to Like|
If Hillary Clinton Runs For President, The Fact She’s A Woman Would Hurt/Help
Fewer voters see her involvement with the Clinton Administration as a negative. In 2008, according to Pew, 29 percent thought that her association with her husband’s tenure would hurt her candidacy. Today, that number has dropped 12 points to just 17 percent.
And, fewer voters are outright hostile to voting for her than they were in 2008. The ABC/Washington Post poll released this week found that 32 percent of Americans said they would “definitely not” vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016; that’s 10 points lower than where voters were in April of 2006, when a more substantial 42 percent said they were “definitely not” going to vote for her.
As for the talk that she's vulnerable to a challenge from her left, that's not borne out by the numbers either. Here’s what the most recent Pew Research poll found:
"Among Democrats, an overwhelming share of liberals (87%) want to see Hillary Clinton run and nearly as many (83%) say there is a good chance they would vote for her. Fewer conservative and moderate Democrats want Clinton to run (69%); 60% say there is a good chance they would vote for her."
Furthermore, says Pew, "Democrats hold positive views of Hillary Clinton across all the traits tested in the survey: broad majorities see her as tough (81%), honest (81%), and as having new ideas (69%); few see her as hard to like (20%). Liberal Democrats are especially likely to associate positive traits with Hillary Clinton." (highlights are mine)
However, where history can be an important guide is in reminding us that no matter how strong her numbers look today, they will inevitably succumb to the laws of partisan political gravity. The more she is talked about in a 2016 context, the harder it will be for her to retain the support of Republicans and GOP leaning independents. Since last April, according to the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, her favorable ratings have dropped 12 points from 56 percent to 44 percent, while her unfavorables have gone up six points (28 to 34 percent).
Gallup polling shows a similar ebb and flow for her over the last six years.
Hillary Clinton Favorable/ Unfavorable Ratings
Hillary Clinton’s biggest weakness, however, remains what Obama exploited in 2008; the perception that she represents the past not the future. Just under half of all voters (49 percent) and 44 percent of independents, according to the Pew poll, say she has "new ideas." This is a critical point for Republicans to remember as they size up their potential candidates for 2016. For example, as chatter about a Jeb Bush candidacy ratchets up, Republicans need to ask themselves if a 63-year old white guy with the last name Bush is the best candidate to take advantage of Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a candidate of the past?