What Is Behind Anti-Hillary Sentiment?

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Basic dislike, policy disagreements, character concerns commonly mentioned

PRINCETON, NJ -- Hillary Clinton's status as a candidate for president in 2008 is certainly contributing to the widespread interest in the campaign. Even sitting vice presidents who sought the office did not have nearly as universal name recognition as Clinton, and few candidates have ever begun the campaign with such polarized ratings. Much of the discussion in both the Democratic and Republican nomination campaigns has centered on the candidates' attempts to derail the Clinton White House Express.

But what exactly is driving the attitudes of those who have negative views of the former first lady and current senator from New York? To help answer that question, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll explored in detail the views of Americans who can be considered Clinton detractors. These are defined as the 44% of registered voters who say they definitely would not vote for Clinton for president in 2008. This anti-Clinton group was then asked to explain in their own words why they would not vote for her.

The most common specific explanation given -- simple dislike of her -- is probably also the most basic, mentioned by 25% of Clinton nonsupporters. Bill Clinton is also on the minds of many of his spouse's opponents -- 13% mention their dislike of him or disapproval of his presidency as a reason for not supporting his wife for president.

Policy disagreements figure prominently in Clinton detractors' reasoning. Seventeen percent mention general disagreement with her on issues, in addition to the relatively small percentages who cite specific disagreements with her on healthcare, Iraq, and immigration. Along the same lines, 6% describe her more generally as a "radical" or "socialist" and 5% say she is "too liberal." Four percent cite her Democratic Party affiliation as a reason they would not vote for her.

There are also several character concerns with Clinton, including perceived dishonesty, a lack of the proper experience to be president, and the notion that she is a "flip-flopper" who takes issue positions that are politically expedient.

Looked at differently, Clinton detractors are about equally likely to give a reason falling into one of the three broad categories of responses described above -- basic dislike of her or her husband (35%), policy disagreements (39%), and character concerns (34%).

One response that doesn't quite fit those broad categories -- mentioned by 8% of Clinton nonsupporters -- involves reservations about a woman being elected president. This includes respondents who say they personally don't favor a woman in the role, as well as those who perceive the country is not ready for a female in the highest elected office.

Views of the Bush-Clinton Dynasty

The poll also asked respondents for their views on the possibility of the continuation of a Bush family-Clinton family White House succession pattern. If Hillary Clinton is elected in 2008, a Bush or a Clinton will have served as president for six consecutive presidential terms or 24 years by the end of Clinton's first term.

A majority thinks a continuation of the Bush-Clinton dynasty in the Oval Office would not make much difference to the country. Those who think it would have a negative impact outnumber those who think it would have a positive impact by more than a 2-to-1 margin (31% to 13%).

Responses to this question are largely driven by one's support for Hillary Clinton for president. A majority of Republicans (most of whom say they definitely would not vote for Clinton) think keeping the Bush-Clinton family succession going is bad for the country, whereas a majority of Democrats (most of whom say they definitely will vote for Clinton or would consider doing so) say it would make little difference to the country. Democrats are twice as likely to say it would be good for the country as to say it would be bad. Most independents have a neutral stance on the issue, but are more likely to say it would be bad rather than good for the country.

Bottom Line

Because Clinton's detractors have fairly fundamental and varied reasons for not supporting her candidacy, it is unlikely she would be able to change these voters' minds between now and next November. But there is some evidence that she has been able to convert voters -- the percentage claiming they would definitely not vote for her now (44%) is seven points lower than in January 2006 (51%).

Starting out the campaign with close to half of voters solidly against her candidacy does not seem like a good position to be in, but other candidates (Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson) have even greater numbers of detractors in the poll, and Clinton's numbers are not appreciably worse than those of Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, and John Edwards.

The apparent theme of the 2008 election campaign has been Clinton's electability. She does have unusually high unfavorable ratings for a candidate this early in the campaign. However, that might just be due to the fact that she is universally known a year before the election, something most presidential candidates cannot claim. Clinton's unfavorable ratings and the percentage who say they definitely would not vote for her are not unusual compared to those of presidential candidates near the end of the campaign. So as long as her negatives don't continue to grow, she may be as well-positioned to win next November as Obama, Edwards, or the Republican candidate would be.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,024 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 2-4, 2007. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 932 registered voters, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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