The Known Quantity

So when’s the first time you were aware of this person named Hillary Rodham Clinton?

In my case, I’m pretty sure it was in early 1980, when I got my first copy of the National Governors Association’s little “face book” about the governors (I was working for one of them at the time), and saw a very young woman with thick-looking glasses identified as the First Lady of Arkansas.

So that was over 35 years ago. Most politically involved people probably weren’t aware of her until some point in the 1992 presidential contest, but that’s still well over two decades ago. She’s been in the spotlight a long, long, time, and as the New York Times‘ Amy Chozick points out, 99% of Americans register some familiarity with her name, and a very 89% say they know enough about her to form an opinion of her.

On the bright side for Mrs. Clinton, she enters the race with a devoted base of supporters, mostly women, who appear solidly in her corner. Women in big states like Ohio and Pennsylvania heavily favored Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries, driving her defeat of Barack Obama in those states.

Mrs. Clinton remains highly popular with African-Americans, college-educated women and single women, said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, said Mrs. Clinton’s profile in the polls was like that of an incumbent facing re-election.

Add in partisan polarization, and you can see why Team HRC feels that reconstruction of the Obama Coalition is within reach, particularly since the demographic categories least likely to know about her–Latinos and under-30s–are going to be leaning in her direction in a general election contest with anyone in the GOP’s vast field (and no, there’s no reason to believe that Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have a lot of appeal to Latinos beyond their own Cuban-American identity group). And while you would normally think of a nearly-universally known quantity like HRC as being handicapped by familiarity–including the baggage accumulated by the Clintons during over two decades in the brightest possible public glare–it also creates a durability that has already come to her aid in the last couple of months when her favorability ratings have survived a heavy GOP/media bombardment.

I often say that “enthusiasm” is an overrated factor in politics because you don’t get a bonus for having a positive attitude when you cast your one vote. It works the other way, too: Hillary-haters do not get extra votes for the intensity of their antipathy towards her. She is very close right now to having the support she needs to become president; everyone else in the field in either party has a lot to prove, and whoever the Republicans nominate will begin with about 45% of the general election vote in the bag and try to build up from there. Barring something extraneous, like another economic shock or a major terrorist attack on the U.S., or something really unexpected, like a Clinton “scandal” that actually changes minds about her, what you see now is what you get. The next seventeen-and-a-half votes are likely to be very frustrating to people who think otherwise.

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.