How important is likability in elections — and especially presidential elections? That question currently bedevils Team Hillary, The Hill’s Amie Parnes notes, and for good reason. In poll after poll, Hillary Clinton’s personal qualities on likability and honesty run consistently negative, and that does not bode well for a general election:
Allies of Hillary Clinton are confident she will win the Democratic presidential nomination, but they are worried about one big thing: her likability problem in the general election.
Clinton has rebounded from a rough spring and summer with a strong fall. And while her eyes remain on the primary, she is already testing general election themes against her possible GOP opponents as they do battle in what could be a drawn-out Republican primary.
Presidential elections are often decided on personality instead of specific policies. Along those lines, people in Clinton’s orbit are worried she doesn’t pass the would-you-like-to-have-a-beer-with-her test. …
“Her challenge remains the same as it always has been — show voters who she is and reveal the person beneath the candidate,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University. “To win people’s trust and to generate enthusiasm, she has to let some of her character come out.”
“She has so many qualifications: experience, knowledge, partisan skill,” Zelizer said, adding that the likability factor “is what she needs to work on.”
The negative perceptions of Hillary are a constant feature in election campaigns going all the way back to the 1992 presidential election. In every national election cycle in which Hillary has participated as a spouse or a candidate except in 2006, her favorability numbers drop sharply to the negative. Philip Bump first noted that in March, when those numbers plummeted even earlier than most expected. They aren’t getting any better, either; today’s Q-poll puts Hillary’s favorability/likability at -7 and her honesty rating at -24, with only 4-5% of voters undecided on either question.
She’s not the only major candidate in this race with that problem, though. Donald Trump routinely scores as bad or worse than Hillary in poll after poll on likability and trustworthiness. Today’s Q-poll has Trump at -24 likability and the same -24 on honesty as Hillary. Over 90% of the electorate has formed an opinion of Trump on those issues, too, which means that there is very little upside to either in a general election. And there is also this from the crosstabs in the Q-poll:
Trumps' fav/unfavs in new Q poll:African Americans — 9/87Latinos — 9/84
— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlakeWP) December 2, 2015
That will be a big problem for Republicans in a general election matchup between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as I argue in my column for The Week today. Americans tend to vote for the candidate who best exemplifies their vision of America — an impulse that lifted Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan to victory. The GOP has a real opportunity to provide that with Hillary as their opponent, but …
This dynamic should present Republicans with a golden opportunity in 2016. Democrats will nominate Hillary Clinton, whose long track record in Washington and deep connection to the Obama administration makes her a continuity candidate at a time when much of the electorate — Republican and Democratic alike — is clamoring for change. Clinton’s personal negatives, especially on trust and honesty, make her a strikingly flawed candidate. Unlike Obama, Reagan, and her own husband, there is little about Clinton that reflects an aspirational identity or a change from the past.
Many of the GOP candidates provide a near-perfect contrast to Clinton. Think about how Carson’s soft-spoken mien and his inspirational life story stack up against Clintonian cronyism, or how a new vision articulated by the younger Rubio and Cruz would look compared to more of the same Clintonian politics. These candidates could plausibly offer a restless electorate an emotional connection to a new idea of what America is. …
Trump seems intent on focusing on a narrow brand of anger and celebrity fandom. Where Romney downplayed his wealth, Trump brags about it. He denigrates his opponents and his critics in personal terms. On the campaign trail, Trump mugs for the crowd while belittling a Carson anecdote about an attempted stabbing that led Carson to faith for redemption. Trump has also made a number of claims that stretch credulity with everyone except Trump’s followers. The most recent of these controversies prompted The Weekly Standard‘s Stephen Hayes to remark on Fox News on Monday that “fact-checking Donald Trump is like picking up after a dog with diarrhea … [there] just isn’t much point.”
Is Trump how America sees itself? Is Trump how America wants to see itself?
Trump has proven resilient, and he’s not dumb. At some point, he will have to figure out how to offer a vision that isn’t all about himself. Or, hopefully, the GOP will find a candidate that can beat Trump to the nomination. Because if Republicans fail, and Trump succeeds, the same electorate that couldn’t find a connection to Romney will go right back to choosing continuity in November 2016, and keep the Republicans out of the White House for another four years.
Those negative perceptions across a wide swath of the electorate are problems for both candidates that will not disappear. They are both too overexposed for that kind of dramatic recalculation. Democrats have no other rational choice for their nominee, but that’s not true for the GOP. For Republicans who want to win the White House, this is an obstacle that cannot be ignored.