It’s hard not to cringe when one hears of Hillary Clinton’s sagging presidential bid. Her handling of classified information during her tenure as Secretary of State and her increasingly likely cover-up is continuing to dog her campaign. The FBI may even open a criminal investigation. Bernie Sanders’ numbers are increasing in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he is attracting massive crowds in progressive bastions like Seattle and Boulder.
Considering these things, it is pertinent that we assess the damage to Hillary Clinton. These need to be examined from two perspectives: the Democratic primary, and the general election. Clinton’s biggest threat in the primary is Sanders, assuming Joe Biden does not jump in; there are many Republicans she needs to worry about in the general.
The Sanders threat in the primary seems to have faded a bit. Yes, Sander’s is gaining in Iowa, and a new poll has him leading in New Hampshire, but national polls have Sanders stuck at no more than 25 percent. Iowa and New Hampshire both have majority-white, progressive electorates favorable to Sanders. But other than those early states, Sanders is struggling because women and minorities are doggedly sticking with Clinton.
Sanders’ problem is that he needs to broaden his appeal. However, his campaign platforms are to the left of many constituencies that support Clinton. He’s not going to win the conservative whites that dominate the Appalachian primaries, and he would struggle among suburban, college-educated Democratic women.
Sanders does appeal to an important and growing segment of the Democratic Party: white progressives. It’s why Sander’s does extremely well in Iowa, New Hampshire, New England, and the West. However, these wins are not the stuff that a viable electoral strategy is built on. If you cannot win delegate-rich Florida, Texas, Michigan, and California, your candidacy is in deep trouble.
Sanders can shift the gears of his campaign, which has largely been a protest stint until now. To do so, he would need to buck the progressives pushing him to talk only about their issues and instead broaden his message.
Sanders has tried to make inroads into the Clinton coalition by playing up his bonafides on civil rights. His campaign recently released a four plank plan to address racial inequality. But then Sanders runs smack dab into the fact that his campaign is simply to far to the left for many Democrats.
Hillary, on the other hand, seems to be in the middle of the Democratic Party. This leaves Sanders little room to grow. Clinton has the money and endorsements from many of the big-wigs of the party. Lastly, despite Clinton’s email troubles, many Democrats still view her favorably, even progressives. So even the Democrats who support Sanders like Clinton.
Party leaders are not breaking in their support of Clinton, and it’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room for a Biden run or giving a Martin O’Malley room to grow. In other words, Clinton still looks like a lock for the Democratic nomination.
The general election poses much bigger problems for Clinton. President Obama’s approval ratings are in the mid-40s, the economy is limping along, and Clinton’s personal favorability ratings are in the toilet. Some might be tempted to call the race lean Republican, but I call it a true tossup.
To be fair there are different takes on just how damaged Clinton is for the general. Nate Cohn, writing for The New York Times, argues that Clinton’s personal numbers don’t matter as much as core factors: President’s approval ratings, the economy, and partisanship.
However, I think such an analysis misses the mark in a few ways. First, a candidate’s personal appeal still matters in campaigns. It is why Obama was able to caricature Romney as a heartless plutocrat, not nationally, but in the Midwest. Romney, like Jeb Bush, never had strong personal appeal on the stump. Obama had it in spades.
Secondly, partisanship changes. It’s true that most voters will behave in a predictable matter, and that many Independents are closet partisans. However, who people vote for is just as important as if they vote. If many soft Democrats stay home instead of voting for ethic plagued Clinton, and many soft Republicans vote against her, well, you see the problem.
Obviously the economy is a huge issue, but a voter’s views on it can be overcome. Exit polls showed Romney won voters on the economy by four percent, and yet he lost the election by four percent. The economy is not the end all be all.
Clinton’s favorable ratings are particularly notable because they have not just fallen among Republicans and leaners but also because they have fallen among Democrats and Independents. In other words, Clinton is not just struggling to portray a positive image to Republican voters but also left-leaning Independents and Democrats.
A majority would probably come out and vote for her regardless, but how many would not is the key. So I disagree that Clinton is in a more secure position than the general thinking assumes. The economy, incumbent approval ratings, and partisanship matter, but they may not be the determinant.
Clinton is also bogged down by the President. He is alienating her candidacy to Jewish voters with the Iran Deal, Cuban-Americans with normalizing relations with Cuba, and conservative/moderate whites with his climate change plan. None of these efforts are making Clinton stronger with these constituencies. Clinton, due to the scandals, has been forced to move further left and support many of the President’s efforts in this regard.
To be fair, it is quite possible Clinton’s numbers can recover, and I have no doubt they will to a degree. Partisan Democrats and Independents will rally to her candidacy when they have an actual Republican candidate and his/her policies to dislike.
The most recent example to this effect would be the 2012 election. Mitt Romney came out of the 2012 GOP primary damaged and bleeding, but Republican conservatives and leaners gradually found a way to like him. However, not enough of them did.
To many, myself included, the idea that elections always hinge on approval ratings, the economy, and partisanship is far to simplistic. Think about it this way. Ohio Republicans had every reason to come out and vote against the President. The economy was tepid, Romney was not a social issue red-meat candidate, and his economic ideas were moderate at best. But Obama’s early attack ad binge paid off.
On election day, 39 percent of the electorate was Democratic compared to 32 percent Republican. Romney’s margin among Independents could not make up the difference. More importantly, turnout dropped in many rural counties relative to 2004. Either these voters forgot to vote or they saw something in Romney they did not like, and they did not vote as a result.
Of course, as Cohn notes, we only have four presidential elections to look at since the new millennium. Further, only two elections have featured increased turnout among minorities and Democrats.
Clinton and Democrats may be able to fall back on one tried-and-true issue: abortion. Republicans stepped in it in the field’s first debate when several top contenders said they oppose abortion, even in the cases of rape and incest. Democrats succeeded in 2010 and 2012 attacking Republicans on abortion. Such a strategy hit a roadblock in 2014 in Iowa and Colorado. Then again, those GOP candidates largely avoided the issues, whereas the GOP presidential field seems to be taking the issue head on.
Still, as 2012 showed, abortion was a side-issue to the main event. Romney won the economy, but he had worse favorable ratings than Obama, and he overwhelmingly lost among voters who ranked “understands people like me” as their most important criteria for their vote.
If the same pattern holds, Clinton’s favorable ratings will matter a lot more than some analysts and Cohn seem to think.