Gallup Poll Review: Karl Rove's Assertions About Hillary Clinton

by Frank Newport, Jeffrey M. Jones, and Joseph Carroll

High unfavorables unusual, but not necessarily a fatal flaw

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- White House adviser Karl Rove -- who announced he would be leaving his post at the end of August -- has during the last week made a number of statements about New York Senator Hillary Clinton's image and electability, in some instances invoking specific mentions of Gallup polls. The thrust of Rove's assertions is that Clinton's "unfavorable" ratings are at record levels for a presidential candidate, and that as a result she is "fatally flawed" in her quest to be elected in November 2008.

Rove is correct in noting that Clinton's unfavorable ratings are high, and unusually so for a candidate this far ahead of the election. However, a review of historical Gallup data suggests that contrary to Rove's assertions, her current image ratings do not necessarily spell defeat. Clinton's current unfavorable ratings are in reality not much different from what other past candidates have had in the year they won the election. Second, her image has been more negative than positive several other times during the past 15 years, but often has recovered and could do so again. Last, despite Clinton's high unfavorables, she remains competitive with the Republican candidates in Gallup's presidential test elections.

One of the first statements by Rove that attracted attention was his comment on the syndicated Rush Limbaugh radio program. Asked about Clinton's election prospects, Rove said: "I'll simply repeat what I said publicly on the record. I think she's likely to be the nominee, and I think she's fatally flawed," followed by this explanation:

There is no front-runner who has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has in the history of modern polling. She's going into the general election with, depending on what poll you look at, in the high forties on the negative side, and just below that on the positive side, and there's nobody who has ever won the presidency who started out in that kind of position.

A few days later, Rove was asked about his statements by host David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press. Rove reiterated his basic position, albeit this time by mentioning the Gallup Poll specifically:

She enters the general election campaign with the highest negatives of any candidate in the history of the Gallup Poll. …She enters the presidential contest with higher negatives. The only person who comes close is -- she -- her's are at 49 -- the only other candidate to come close was Al Gore with 34, I believe.

On the CBS program Face the Nation, Rove told moderator Bob Schieffer: "Well, she enters the general -- she enters the primary season with the highest negatives of any front-runner since the history of polling began."

Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday pressed Rove a little more on his statements, asking "Well, but what makes her fatally flawed? I understand she has high negatives. George W. Bush had high negatives going into the 2004 campaign -- didn't beat him." To which Rove responded: '"Yeah, but look. First of all, they were nowhere near as high as hers. In fact, I think the next highest is Al Gore going into the 2000 campaign."

Since Rove has made his assertions in off-the-cuff comments in broadcast interview settings, it is not surprising that they vary somewhat in comparative precision. In some instances Rove references the primary election season, while in others he references the general election. In particular, Rove appears to make reference to "entering" the primary or general election season, a relatively vague time frame, particularly this year when campaigning essentially began as the 2004 election ended.

Despite some uncertainty about the precise details of Rove's contention, it appears that his basic points are clear. Rove is asserting that Clinton:

  • Has higher unfavorable ratings now than other presidential candidates in previous election cycles
  • Will be "fatally" unable to win the general election in 2008 should she gain the Democratic nomination, according to historical record

As noted, it is impossible to determine what the level of unfavorable ratings were for other presidential candidates who were "entering" the election season, since there is no clear consensus as to when each campaign began.

But in order to put Clinton's current image in historical perspective, we reviewed Gallup poll data from previous elections and searched for the highest unfavorable ratings given to major candidates in each. The results show that several other presidential candidates were at some points during their campaigns in essentially the same position as Clinton is today, with an unfavorable rating just below 50%. This includes George W. Bush in 2004 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

Clinton's precise current ratings are 47% favorable and 48% unfavorable. The highest unfavorable ratings of the major candidates from the previous four elections are as follows:

High Points in "Unfavorable Ratings" of Candidates 1992-2004
Source: Gallup Polls

Date

Favorable

Unfavorable

 

%

%

2004 election

 

 

 

George W. Bush

Jan 29-Feb 1

52

47

John Kerry

Oct 14-16

52

45

 

 

 

2000 (including post-election vote count controversy period)

George W. Bush

Nov 13-15

53

43

Al Gore

Dec 2-4

46

52

 

 

 

2000 (excluding post-election vote count controversy period)

George W. Bush

Sep 15-17

51

41

Al Gore

Oct 24-26

53

42

Aug 4-5

52

42

 

 

 

1996 election

 

 

 

Bill Clinton

Jan 12-15

54

44

Bob Dole

Oct 26-29 †

47

47

 

 

 

1992 election

 

 

 

Bill Clinton

Apr 20-22 †

42

49

George H. W. Bush

Oct 7-9 †

38

58

 

 

 

† Sample based on registered voters.

Additionally, a careful review of past data shows that there is no reason to assume Hillary Clinton will maintain these high unfavorable ratings as the election draws closer. As the above data suggest, a number of candidates have had relatively high unfavorable ratings at some point in the election campaign but most managed to improve them at least somewhat by Election Day.

But there have also been numerous examples in recent years of more dramatic change -- when well-known politicians' favorable ratings have shifted from being net-negative to net-positive. Sometimes these changes have occurred in a very short time span.

The following table shows a list of politicians whose favorable ratings were net-negative and later became net-positive. This includes two active candidates for the 2007 election -- former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (who is not that well known) and Arizona Senator John McCain, whose images have become more positive just in the past few weeks.

Politicians Whose Favorable Ratings Went From Net Negative to Net Positive

Politician

Date of
first reading

Favorable/
Unfavorable

Date of second reading

Favorable/
Unfavorable

 

%

 

%

Bill Clinton

Sept. 1994

47/50

Jan. 1995

56/42

Jesse Jackson

Apr. 1995

38/55

July 1995

47/40

Al Gore

Dec. 2-4, 2000

46/52

Dec. 15-17, 2000

57/40

Hillary Clinton

Mar. 2001

44/53

June 2003

53/43

Ted Kennedy

Mar. 2004

42/47

July 2004

50/39

Hillary Clinton

Apr. 2007

45/52

May 2007

53/45

John McCain

Aug. 3-5 2007

41/42

Aug. 13-16, 2007

45/37

Mitt Romney

Aug. 3-5 2007

22/31

Aug. 13-16, 2007

33/24

What is most relevant is the fact that Hillary Clinton's own favorable ratings have shown dramatic shifts since she entered national public life in 1992. As recently as April of this year, a majority of Americans rated Clinton unfavorably, but a month later, her favorable rating had increased 8 percentage points while her unfavorable rating dropped 7 points. Clinton benefited from the release of her autobiography in June 2003, which erased some of the negative feelings toward her stemming from the Clintons' messy White House departure in early 2001. Clinton's favorable ratings also improved following the 1996 and 2000 elections. The following graph shows the trend line on opinions of Clinton, which have shown significant fluctuation over time even though she has been nearly universally known since 1994.  

It is true that many Americans have made up their mind about Clinton and will forever more view her negatively, and there are many Americans who will continue to view her positively no matter what. But there is also a non-trivial percentage of Americans whose opinions of Clinton are not seemingly set in stone, enough that her overall rating can shift from being generally positive to generally negative as occurred earlier this year.

Rove's hypothesis that Clinton's candidacy is doomed may rest on the assumption that candidates' negatives go higher as the campaign progresses. That is usually the case, but probably results from the fact that Americans become more familiar with the candidates and increasingly view them as partisan figures over the course of the campaign. Clinton is already known to almost all Americans, and opinions of her are already divided along partisan lines, so the normal campaign dynamics likely do not apply to her. But just as it is possible for Clinton's image to improve during the campaign, it is also could get worse. However, that would more than likely be the result of a specific negative incident, rather than the normal dynamics of a presidential campaign.

While favorables are a strong predictor of possible electoral success, they are also an indirect measure. One important direct measure is the assessment of Americans' actual vote intentions. On these, Clinton -- even with her currently high unfavorable ratings -- is competitive with all of the leading Republicans.

For example, the latest Gallup general election trial heat shows 50% of registered voters preferring former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani while 46% prefer Clinton when the two are matched. In the prior poll, Clinton had the slight edge over Giuliani (50%-46%), though in neither case was the lead statistically significant.

It is notable that Giuliani stands as the most positively rated 2008 presidential candidate in terms of favorable ratings at 59% (with a 27% unfavorable rating), but still does not beat Clinton in a trial heat "if the election were held today".

Clinton also was competitive with McCain in a June trial heat matchup, and led Romney. In that June poll, Clinton did no worse against McCain and Giuliani than her chief Democratic competitors (Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards). She did slightly worse against Romney than either Obama or Edwards, but she still led the former Massachusetts governor by a statistically significant margin in that poll.

 Conclusion

A review of Gallup poll data suggests that Hillary Clinton's current high unfavorable ratings are not unprecedented. Other candidates have had similarly high unfavorable ratings at various points in presidential election campaigns in previous years. Two of these candidates -- George W. Bush in 2004 and Bill Clinton in 1992 -- went on to win the election.

Additionally, Rove's assumptions that Hillary Clinton's candidacy is "fatally flawed" run counter to the historical finding that candidates' images often change, sometimes dramatically, as the campaign progresses. In other words, Clinton's ultimate electability will likely be determined more by what happens in the next 15 months while she campaigns than by what Americans think of her now. It is clear that Americans have been willing to revise their opinions of Clinton over time in response to current events, just as they have of other presidential candidates historically.

Typically, a winning presidential candidate's favorable rating is only slightly more positive than negative on the eve of the election. Clinton would only need to boost her positives a few points to achieve that position.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,019 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 13-16, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 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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