The Million Pixel Image

When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, about the only insightful thing about her I had to offer is that she had become almost as much a pop culture figure as a politician, which meant, for better or for worse, that it was difficult for her to change fixed opinions about who she was. Today at Politico Magazine Larry Sabato suggests that same sort of factor could protect HRC from too much damage over this or that perceived “scandal:”

[T]here is good reason to think that scandal has a much less pronounced effect at the presidential level. For one thing, most elections for the White House revolve around macro-issues such as the economy and war, and voters instinctively realize that personal peccadilloes fade in importance. For another, most top-tier contenders are reasonably well known and have been vetted to some degree by the press and opponents in prior elections. When voters already have a clearly formed view of a candidate and his or her strengths and weaknesses, it naturally becomes more difficult to alter impressions.

For no one is this more true than Hillary Clinton, who has been in the national spotlight, center stage, for 23 years. HuffPost Pollster data show over 90 percent of the public has already formed an opinion of Clinton, the most of any potential 2016 candidate. Other than the very youngest voters, is there really anyone left who doesn’t have a mostly fixed view of her?

Sabato observes that the same may be true of Jeb Bush, with the difference that his image is far more the product of his family’s deeds and misdeeds:

Think of it this way: Both Clinton and Bush enter the campaign cycle with a million pixel image in the voters’ minds. If you add a couple thousand new pixels to the picture, the overall image doesn’t change much. A garden-variety scandal—and maybe an entire campaign full of them—won’t transform the projection on the screen.

So adding the “million pixel image” factor to the inherent power of non-candidate-specific fundamentals in presidential campaigns, the much-discussed Democratic fear–and Republican hope–of HRC being felled by the email “scandal” or some other revelation is not terribly well-founded:

History offers a bit of proof. Even when scandals were prominent in the headlines or recent memory, they have only rarely had a critical impact on the selection of a president. If you examine the 29 presidential elections since 1900 to look for the dominant deciding factor(s), you’ll find that scandal has seldom played any conclusive role. The traditional, overriding voter concerns about the economy and war adequately explain the bulk of election outcomes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.