Why Less Competition Is Hurtful to Hillary

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It is increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton will have to overcome a number of serious voter concerns about her to win the presidency. These challenges have been complicated by the unprecedented position in modern times of not having a real challenger from within her own party.

Though the latest polls continue to show her leading the modest field of announced and potential Democratic candidates, they also show significant declines in her favorability rating and concerns about her honesty and trustworthiness. One of the most troubling findings for her in recent national surveys is that while she leads most Republican candidates in head-to-head match-ups, she runs about even with Sen. Rand Paul and is not that far ahead of several others.

Her strategic problem is that, absent a strong Democratic challenger to duke it out with, questions about various Hillary controversies, her age and the “Bill factor” will hang there to be resolved in the general election against a Republican candidate who has been on the road addressing his or her own image weaknesses.

Meanwhile, the press, which would ordinarily be covering a full set of Democratic candidates, has and will continue to turn its undivided attention to Hillary. And that has a downside. Note, for example, recent criticisms over Clinton not taking press questions for 21 days, getting speaking fees from lobbying groups, the income she and Bill have earned in recent years, and so on. While media attention is a positive for a candidate, being its almost sole focus on the Democratic side has not been easy.

And this could well serve to demoralize Democratic voters. There are already signs of that in the national polls. The Pew Research Center found Democrats far less engaged in the presidential race than they were eight years ago, while Republicans are not.  A March survey found just 58 percent of Democrats saying they had given a lot or some thought to the presidential candidates, compared to 71 percent back in 2007. There was no significant falloff in Republican campaign interest.

Indeed, according to the latest Pew survey, Republicans are more positive about the GOP field than they were at nearly comparable points in the past two presidential campaigns: 57 percent rate it excellent or good. In contrast, fewer Democrats (54 percent) are positive about the current group of candidates than felt the same way in September 2007 (64 percent). Not surprisingly, then, an April Gallup poll found 54 percent of Democrats saying  a number of strong candidates competing for the nomination would be better for the party, while only 40 percent thought it would be better for a single strong candidate to emerge early.  

In the end, Hillary’s problems are not with Democrats, who will ultimately back her if she is the nominee, but with the broader electorate. And recent polls showed the impact of the latest round of Clinton controversies.

Gallup found her unfavorable rating climbing steadily—from 39 percent in March to 46 percent in mid-May—which virtually matches her unfavorable rating in Pew’s May survey (47 percent). And the April Wall Street Journal/NBC poll added that 50 percent of its respondents gave her a negative rating when it comes to being “honest and straightforward.”

The good news for Hillary is that she recovers well. Her favorable ratings have dipped into the 40s in the Gallup rating on a number of occasions over the past 20 years, only to strongly recover into the 60s for significant periods of time. And while voters worry about her honesty, they give her a positive rating for being knowledgeable and having the experience to handle the presidency (51 percent, according to WSJ/NBC) and having strong leadership qualities (65 percent, CBS/New York Times).

From this vantage point, Clinton would be well served at this stage by having other Democratic candidates to absorb some of the torrent of press scrutiny to which she has been subjected. On the Republican side, only Jeb Bush has received anything close to the same focus. At this pace, one can only wonder about the condition of her public image when she starts to take on the Republican nominee.

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