Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What voters didn't like about Hillary in 2008

Hillary struggled with perceptions of honesty and likability in 2008 (Photo: State Department)

Hillary Clinton is the unquestioned front-runner for both the Democratic nomination and the presidency, but it's worthwhile to check out where and how she could stumble.

Roger Simon talked about some of the procedural issues this morning, but I want to quickly lay out some more fundamental problems -- those bubbling from the candidate herself.

After all, candidates can sometimes fix campaigns which can, in turn, fix candidates in a reciprocal role of electoral goodness.

But candidates seem to return to their fundamental mean over the course of a long campaign, and it's quite possible that the Hillary we see in 2016 will be very similar to the Hillary we saw in 2008. Probably, because they're probably a similar person.

So with that backdrop, let's take a look at what voters didn't like about Hillary in 2008 and how that could buffet her again.

a. The Honesty Question

In the political context of today, the Clintons are mostly known as adept, economic stewards of a better time, but they've also been saddled with accusations that they're politically shifty and opportunistic since the time they first stepped into politics.

That perception haunted Hillary in her last presidential run, as this Gallup poll from March 2008 shows.

During the heat of the Democratic primary race, she couldn't even manage to crack the 50% threshold on perceptions of honesty.

44% of adults said she was honest and trustworthy, and 53% said she wasn't.

To show how awful that was, check out where the other three major candidates stood, at the time.

John McCain's honesty rating was +40%, Barack Obama's was +34%, and Hillary's was -9%.

Hillary's honesty rating sucked in 2008 (via Gallup)

Further, one month later, Gallup asked an open-ended question about all national adults' perceptions of the candidates.

The most common words coming to people's minds when they were asked about Hillary were "dishonest" and "don't trust" (15%).

That edged out the most common positive association with her, "qualified/capable of being president" (10%).

Now, let's look back at the 2012 general election.

If you remember, one of Barack Obama's most decisive advantages over Mitt Romney last November came on honesty, where he consistently held double-digit leads. Romney never shook the perception that he was a flip-flopper, and accusations of that sort always rolled off Obama's political back.

Impressions of honesty also plagued John Kerry's presidential run, and for all the negative perceptions swirling around George W. Bush in 2004, few doubted that he meant what he said.

The point is that Hillary's greatest vulnerability in 2008 was the honesty thing, and there's no reason to suggest it can't come back to bite her again.

Has she actually corralled her instincts for political expediency? If not, she could swoon here again.

b. The Empathy Question

As we know, empathy was nearly everything in 2012. Mitt Romney downed Obama on scores of personal attributes, but was thrashed on empathy.

Well, it turns out that Hillary had her own empathy issues in 2008.

In March 2008 (during the heat of the Democratic primary), Gallup found that 54% of Americans thought Hillary cared "about the needs and problems of people" like them.

Now that's not too bad, but it's surprisingly middling: 54% said the same thing about John McCain (who was never considered terribly empathetic), and a much stronger 66% called Barack Obama empathetic at that time.

So, let's put this in a 2016 context: If I told you that I could hand you a candidate who, in the middle of her campaign, had the empathy rating of John McCain in 2008, would you call her invincible?

There's no doubt that Hillary has provoked extreme sympathy at various points in her career. People raged with her over Bill Clinton's presidential philandering, and they rallied to her defense whenever she seemed left for dead in 2008.

But her 2008 run was choppy, and she only found a relatability wheelhouse with core Democratic constituencies at various points

Despite the narrative that American was falling in love, independents never warmed to her, even though they backed Barack Obama over John McCain by a solid margin later that year (so you can't offer the popular But independents are actually Republicans! defense here).

c. The Likability Question

Hillary battled likability gaps at various points in the 2008 campaign.

In September 2007, for example, a Pew Research Poll found that Democrats viewed her as less "friendly" than either Barack Obama and John Edwards -- even while she was leading the race, overall.

To combat that persistent likability gap, Hillary famously rolled out a special website called "The Hillary I know" which featured testimonials from friends and constituents about her personal touch (always a troubling move).

Mark Penn, a top Clinton strategist, said that's the message: "It's important for people to understand the depth of Hillary, the way she has helped people."

The whole idea of trying to get voters to, as Penn told USA Today, "understand the depth of Hillary, the way she has helped people," sounds a whole lot like Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign.

The fact is: when politicians have to say "I'm likable", they're generally not.

We often think of Barack Obama's famous New Hampshire debate gaffe wherein he sneeringly called Hillary "likable enough" as a bad Obama moment that helped revitalize Hillary's campaign.

Yes, it was.

But it was also a reflection of just how difficult a time she was having on the likability front.

In a way, you could say it was as bad a reflection on her candidacy as it was his.

Now, unquestionably, Hillary's been crushing it on likability over the past four years, but again -- not as a candidate but instead an American figure.

Is it likely that as she nears her seventies, Hillary will suddenly figure out how to project the warmth and relatability she struggled showing as a candidate?

She needs to prove it.

Overall: So here's the deal: three personal traits bedeviled Hillary's 2008 campaign -- perceptions of honesty, empathy, and likability.

That doesn't sound like an invincible candidate. In fact, that sounds a lot like Mitt Romney.

Having said all that, here's an important caveat -- in 2016, Hillary won't be running in the Democratic primary against a candidate for whom the media has a "thinly-veiled" preference (as Time's Mark Halperin pointed out regarding Hillary vs. Obama ).

This time, Hillary will be the most historic candidate in the field, and it's quite possible that a somewhat chastened media will want to make up for the sins of 2008 and go a little easier on Hillary.

A defanged media and Barack Obama-less field could do wonders for fixing perceptions of honesty and empathy.

So, yes, Hillary is still unquestionably 2016's favorite, but let's see how much of 2008 remains in her.