Politics & Government

Experts: Conventional wisdom on Clinton's electability flawed

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign fundraiser.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign fundraiser. Seth Wenig / AP

WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton's opponents are hyping this bit of conventional wisdom: If she wins the Democratic nomination, her high negative ratings in polls will make it especially difficult for her to win the general election in November 2008.

Karl Rove, the guru behind President Bush's political career, framed this widely held view last month when he called Clinton a "fatally flawed" candidate because of her high negatives:

"There is no front-runner who has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has in the history of modern polling," Rove told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. "She's going into the general election with — depending on what poll you look at — in the high 40s on the negative side, and just below that on the positive side, and there's nobody who has ever won the presidency who started out in that kind of position."

But polling experts say that Clinton's negatives - generally somewhere around 45 percent of people tell pollsters they view her unfavorably - may not be politically fatal or even much of a drag.

How can that be? The fluid nature of politics, the New York senator's evolving profile and the Electoral College map combine to suggest that Clinton may not be too polarizing to win after all, several independent experts said.

"Nothing is completely locked in stone," said Michael Dimock, the associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "People shift, and contexts shift. The context people perceive her in has changed. . . . There are opportunities for the balance to shift."

Clinton's opponents think they can define her by her negatives. Republicans already have issued a string of news releases titled "Re-Living History," a play on the title of Clinton's memoir, "Living History." The releases tie Clinton's contentious past as first lady — including letting campaign donors camp out in the Lincoln Bedroom and her failed health-care plan — to her presidential candidacy today. And they think that nothing can motivate Republican voters to turn out as much as the threat that Hillary Clinton might be elected president.

Clinton's Democratic rivals echo that line, trying to plant doubt among Democratic voters that they dare not back a loser in the fall election, however much they might like her.

Nevertheless, Clinton leads other Democrats in most early-state and national polls. She beats every Republican in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups. And her $27 million third-quarter fundraising total eclipsed even second-place Sen. Barack Obama's impressive $20 million haul.

Unfavorable ratings in the 40s don't preclude victory in November. President Bush was re-elected in 2004 with negative ratings ranging into the mid-40s, about the same as those of Democratic nominee John Kerry.

Detractors say that in the tumult of a general-election campaign, candidates' unfavorable ratings generally rise. If Clinton's were to increase much more, she'd be dangerously close to the 50s, meaning more people would dislike her than like her.

But it's entirely possible that her negatives could stabilize or even decline as voters are reintroduced to her and she's matched against a Republican with negatives of his own.

Many Americans' image of Clinton was set in the 1990s when she was first lady. As a New York senator since 2001, she's changed her style considerably. When people tune in over the next year to weigh the presidential candidates, they'll see that Hillary Clinton vintage 2007-08 may not be quite what they remember. She may be able to re-brand her image in the public imagination.

For example, those who say they dislike Clinton could change their minds "once the debates start and . . . she cleans somebody's clock," said Larry Harris, principal at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

In addition, "her negatives are probably already out," said Cliff Zukin, a polling expert at Rutgers University. That may not be as true for her opponents.

"Do people in Florida know Rudy Giuliani has had three wives? Probably not. Do they know Mitt Romney's had this position, then that position? Probably not," Zukin said.

"She's like a quasi-incumbent. Whoever wins the early state primaries will get more press scrutiny. But there's less downside of that for her. . . . What are we going to find out about Hillary Clinton that's really going to surprise us? There's more potential for negative growth in other candidates."

Clinton's own history — and her husband's — shows that it's possible to reverse high negative ratings.

In August 1995, Bill Clinton's negative rating was 49 percent in a Pew poll. Yet he was re-elected easily the following year.

In February 1996, a Pew poll showed Hillary Clinton's unfavorability rating at 54 percent. Two years later, it was 31 percent.

"One of the things the doom-and-gloomers on this overlook is it's not impossible for candidates to win over people, even for someone as familiar as Hillary Clinton," said Dimock, of the Pew center. For example, a recent Keystone poll by Franklin & Marshall College found Clinton's unfavorables in Pennsylvania to be 41 percent in August, down 5 points since June.

Regina Corson, the director of the Harris Poll, said Clinton had the potential to turn conventional wisdom on its head in a way that no other general election candidate ever had: "Those who are soft on disliking her, she may be able to work toward changing."

That's especially true if she's able to present herself as an agent of change after eight years of the Bush presidency and to campaign on fresher themes than the flaps that marked her tenure as first lady.

Then there's the Electoral College. Clinton's high negatives may be skewed because she's wildly unpopular in some places and less so in others. The Electoral College makes the general election more of a 50-state election than a single national one.

"Take Alabama," Harris said. "Everybody hates her there, just about. But guess what: She's gonna lose Alabama anyway. The election is going to be won in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan."