Clinton’s Poll Numbers Are Dropping Because of More Than Just the Emails

Hillary Clinton’s latest favorability ratings are not good:

Dogged by continued scrutiny of her email practices as secretary of state, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s favorability with the American public has sunk to one of its lowest levels in Gallup’s 23-year trend. Currently, 41% of U.S. adults say they have a favorable opinion of the Democratic front-runner, while 51% hold an unfavorable view.

While a single outlier poll is no reason for alarm and the average of polls shows Clinton ahead of the field, the latest SurveyUSA poll showing Donald Trump winning a head-to-head matchup with Clinton should be a little troubling.

There is a lot of clamor among Clinton supporters that there is a media conspiracy to destroy her. It’s certainly true that most of the media doesn’t like Clinton, but it’s also true that the Clinton campaign hasn’t exactly been doing much to generate positive press. Clinton has mostly been in a quiet defensive crouch, assuming that the “silly season” of August and September would pass mostly by without incident as she blanketed the airwaves in Iowa, and that her aura of inevitability and high public approval ratings would carry the day.

That was a bad strategy in 2007, and it’s a bad strategy today. Greg Sargent’s take on Clinton’s declining numbers is particularly well worth a read:

But while there’s little question that the email story does matter, it may be only a part of a larger, more compelling explanation: Clinton does better in the polls when she is not seen as a partisan political figure, and she sinks in the polls when she is seen as a partisan political figure.

In other words, her drop was probably inevitable once she made the transition from Secretary of State — a job that carries the trappings of above-politics statesmanship, or if you prefer, states-womanship — to candidate for president.

As it turns out, this pattern has been visible in polling of Clinton that goes back over two decades.

Essentially, no matter how good a president she might or might not be, Hillary Clinton isn’t the greatest candidate. When she goes on the campaign trail and faces competition, she tends to do worse for it. There are a lot of theories about why that is, but my personal take on it is that it’s about demeanor. Hillary Clinton has a very reserved campaign demeanor. She rarely gets visibly upset, and she almost never loses message discipline or does anything that one might consider a campaign “stunt.” It’s all steady as she goes.

The problem with that is that it makes her look robotic to many eyes. At a time when people are hurting and respect for elites is at an all-time low, voters are looking for someone who will channel their anger and resentment into real change. Republican voters are getting that with Donald Trump, and liberal Democrats are getting it with Bernie Sanders.

Clinton’s email problems are certainly hurting her, but it’s the aura of the candidate and the campaign that are more to blame for her polling declines. It’s not enough to say you will fight for the American people. You have to demonstrate it in your body language, your tone, and your choice of words. And sometimes you have to show that you’re willing to mix it up and do the unexpected and the controversial.

The Clinton approach does none of those things, and it’s showing in the numbers.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.