HRC About Where You Should Have Expected Her to Be

Marc Nozell/Wikimedia Commons

At FiveThirtyEight today Nate Silver conducts a comprehensive analysis of Hillary Clinton’s presidential standing, and admits he cannot tell if the “email scandal” is the source of her slow but steady decline in favorable ratings, but also argues they are not inconsistent with the pattern of past front-runners who become the temporary victim of media “narratives” about their failure to meet impossible expectations.

Where Nate finds solid ground is in rebutting the idea that Bernie Sanders’ strong poll numbers in Iowa and (especially) New Hampshire represent an existential threat to Clinton’s campaign:

Gore is the only non-incumbent in the modern era to have swept all 50 states. (Two incumbents, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, also lost some states.) More often, candidates similar to Clinton have lost Iowa or New Hampshire, along with a few other states, before consolidating their support and eventually winning fairly easily.

In Sanders, Clinton has drawn an opponent who is relatively well suited to New Hampshire and Iowa. The reason is simple: Sanders’s support comes mostly from white liberals, and the Democratic electorates in New Hampshire and Iowa have lots of white liberals. Furthermore, Iowa and New Hampshire are small states, which makes it easier for candidates who don’t have Clinton’s financial resources to compete there. But we’ve seen this movie before. Based on current polling averages, Sanders would almost exactly replicate Bradley’s performance in 2000, losing Iowa by double digits, giving Clinton a close call in New Hampshire, then losing badly once the calendar turned to more populous and diverse states.

Or Sanders could do better than that, winning New Hampshire and a few other states in New England, the Upper Midwest or Pacific Northwest, perhaps along with one or two surprises elsewhere. But that too would be consistent with the losses that “inevitable” candidates like Clinton have endured in the past.

So what about those deteriorating favorability ratings?

The email scandal does yield lots of unflattering news articles about Clinton. But, as is the case for the public, the press isn’t lacking for real or imagined Clinton scandals to pick through (see the activities of the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s paid speeches, Benghazi, etc.).

Even if there were no Clinton scandals, however, she’d probably still be receiving fairly negative press coverage. The campaign press more or less openly confesses to a certain type of bias: rooting for the story. Inevitability makes for a really boring story, especially when it involves a figure like Clinton who has been in public life for so long.

Instead, the media wants campaigns with lots of “game changers,” unexpected plot twists and photo finishes. If the story isn’t really there, the press can cobble one together by invoking fuzzy concepts like “momentum” and “expectations,” or by cherry-picking polls and other types of evidence. The lone recent poll to show Sanders ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire made banner headlines, for example, while the many other polls that have Clinton still leading, or which show Sanders’s surge slowing down in Iowa and nationally, have mostly been ignored.

As a result, the flow of news that Americans are getting about Clinton is quite negative. Indeed, the steady decline in her favorability ratings seems consistent with the drip, drip, drip of negative coverage, as opposed to the spikes upward and downward that one might expect if any one development was all that significant to voters.

Nate doubts HRC can escape this dynamic by much of anything short of winning the Democratic presidential nomination, which will obviously make the astronomical expectations she’s been struggling against moot. The silver lining is that the public so used to hearing about “Clinton scandals” that it might take something unusual to actually hurt HRC (Nate borrows a baseball term–“replacement value”–to refer to the threshold a “scandal” must reach to matter to Clinton:

[G]iven how long the Clintons have been in public life and their reputation for playing at the edges of the rules, it might take a fairly bad scandal to capture the public’s imagination and produce much “value over replacement scandal.” Search Google Trends for “Clinton scandal” and you’ll find spikes of public interest around an actual or alleged scandal involving the Clintons once or twice per election cycle; the current one does not particularly stand out.

The bottom line is that Clinton is about where you should have expected her to be by now if you didn’t buy the earlier hype and figured a Democratic challenger would emerge to take advantage of (a) unhappiness with Clinton and Obama among white progressives in the early states and (b) the desire of many Clinton supporters to “keep her honest” via left-bent pressure. The popularity she brought into the cycle (largely a product of a “honeymoon” period following her service as Secretary of State) was sure to erode. After all, her last name is “Clinton” and most of the media stereotypes about her are too deeply embedded to change.

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.