Monday, July 16, 2007

Hillary Clinton's High Unfavorable Ratings

I received an email today that, in part, discussed Hillary Clinton's relatively high unfavorable ratings. This is one of the points that Clinton '08 doubters often focus on, arguing that a candidate with unfavorable ratings so high will have a hard time winning a national election. (Charles Franklin has posted some nice historic data on her unfavorable ratings on his blog and at

One thing I was curious about is whether a different Democratic nominee would be able to win the votes of those who view Clinton unfavorably. So, I took a look at the most recent data I could get my hands on quickly. The national survey was conducted by Pew in early December (2006). One nice thing about the data is that they broke down favorability ratings on a 4 point scale (very/mostly favorable, very/mostly unfavorable). Here is the breakdown for Clinton in that survey:

Very Favorable: 21.3%
Mostly Favorable: 33.9%
Mostly Unfavorable: 19.8%
Very Unfavorable: 25.1%

Now, let's look at how those ratings break down along party lines:

Very Favorable: 5%
Mostly Favorable: 14.3%
Mostly Unfavorable: 31.3%
Very Unfavorable: 49.5%

Very Favorable: 14.0%
Mostly Favorable: 40.3%
Mostly Unfavorable: 22.1%
Very Unfavorable: 23.7%

Very Favorable: 40.4%
Mostly Favorable: 45.0%
Mostly Unfavorable: 8.3%
Very Unfavorable: 6.3%

Unfortunately, the survey didn't include any other Democratic candidates that I could compare Clinton's numbers with, but I'm not submitting this post for publication in a journal, so what the heck! We aren't too interested in Republicans here, because in the last few elections they have been very loyal in voting for their presidential candidates. Thus, no Democrat is likely to capture much of that vote. Clinton's unfavorables among Democrats is about 15%, which may be a little higher than one would expect. But, a little further investigation into that 15% reveals that they are mostly Democrats who identify themselves as conservatives or moderates and reside in the South or the Midwest. This is not a loyal Democratic constituency. Nevertheless, just over half of this 15% reported that they voted for John Kerry in 2004, so the Clinton camp may be concerned about at least part of that 15%.

The most important group are those identifying themselves as independents, since that is likely to be the swing vote in the election. About 46% of that group gives Clinton an unfavorable rating. However, public opinion research shows consistently that many people like to think of themselves as independents even if they loyally support one party or the other. Fortunately, the Pew survey added a question asking citizens which party they leaned towards. Here are how Hillary's favorables/unfavorables break down among independents who did and did not lean toward one party or the other:

Independents Leaning Republican:
Very Favorable: 8.3%
Mostly Favorable: 16.6%
Mostly Unfavorable: 32.5%
Very Unfavorable: 42.7%

Independents Leaning Democratic:
Very Favorable: 21.0%
Mostly Favorable: 53.7%
Mostly Unfavorable: 15.5%
Very Unfavorable: 9.9%

Independents Not Leaning Toward Either Party:
Very Favorable: 15.7%
Mostly Favorable: 37.1%
Mostly Unfavorable: 20.0%
Very Unfavorable: 27.1%

This gives us some interesting insight into Clinton's numbers. Note that there are roughly equivalent numbers of leaning Republicans who have favorable views of Clinton as there are leaning Democrats who have unfavorable views. Thus, they mostly cancel each other out. Clinton supporters might be somewhat concerned that leaning Republicans are more likely to have very unfavorable feelings than leaning Democrats are to fall into the very favorable category. Clinton would surely also like to have fewer unfavorables in the non-leaning independents category, but I hestitate to make too much of that group since it is a mishmash of voters that are not nearly as likely to vote as the other groups.

Based on this crude analysis, I'd say that Clinton does not appear to have high unfavorable ratings among any group that would otherwise want to vote Democratic. In other words, most people who give Clinton an unfavorable rating are probably not going to vote for any Democratic nominee and most of those who view her favorably would probably vote for nearly any Democrat anyway. All of this could change, of course. Pundits often use Clinton's high favorables and unfavorables to note that Clinton is a polarizing figure, but I think that what this analysis indicates is that there is little remarkable about these ratings. Views toward Clinton are polarized, but so is the American political climate more generally. I'd bet that any Democratic nominee will end up with favorables/unfavorables like Clinton's a year from now; Clinton's long history in the public eye just helped her get there first.

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