AUGUST 27, 2007
Karl Rove made waves earlier this month with his assertion that Hillary Clinton's bid for the White House will be hampered by the negative views of her that a sizable chunk of the public holds. "She enters the general election campaign with the highest negatives of any candidate in the history of the Gallup poll," Rove said. "It just says people have made an opinion about her. It's hard to change opinions once you've been a high-profile person in the public eye, as she has for 16 or 17 years."
Clinton's negatives are indeed unusually high, averaging in the mid-40 percent range, 10 to 15 points higher than those of most of the other major presidential candidates. But are high negatives early in a campaign really fatal? And if not, what can candidates do to lower those numbers? The New Republic asked several well-known campaign consultants. Here's what they said:
My sense is that over the course of running for Senate there that her negative ratings probably did decline there from the time she first became a candidate until now. If so, that would be pretty strong evidence that it is possible for her particularly to lower her negatives, and others have talked and written about what she did in that campaign to get voters to reevaluate her. I do think that if she becomes the nominee that she'll have an opportunity to do that. There's a substantial portion of those who currently have a negative view of her who would be willing to revisit their opinion if they realize that she is one of only two choices they have to become the next president of the United States.
The idea that all of the 45, 46 percent or whatever that have the negative view of her are all locked in, I think that's wrong. I'm not trying to say this is a trivial concern, but I wouldn't accept the idea that it can't be changed, because most voters formed an opinion of her as first lady in a very different context, and unless you're a voter in New York state, you haven't been given any new information about her in a long time, so that opinion is many years old, and I do think people will be willing to take another look at her.
It's pretty clear that she's taken positions that are less liberal overall than a lot of voters assume she is. So her first strategy, if and when she wins the primary, is just to emphasize the issues on which she's to the right of other Democrats. And there are lots of issues on which she genuinely is less liberal than people think she is. That's one reason why I don't think it's implausible to think she'll be able to drive the negatives down. And she doesn't have to drive them down all that far. I think you have to assume given how polarized our country is right now, I'd be surprised if both candidates for president didn't wind up with negatives north of 40 percent by election day. You don't need to bring it down a lot to get in the same place the other candidates will be next year. Whoever the GOP nominee is will have numbers that high by the time the Democrats are done with them. Her problem is that everyone already knows her.
Not everyone is going to love you. You will always have negatives. You need to find people who view you negatively but are persuadable, focus on how those people view you, and find an argument that you feel is going to be persuasive to those people. You need to tailor a message to them. If you focus on the entire population, you're going to spend a lot of time and money going after people who basically will never come around to you.
In Hillary's case, the first thing she should do is not worry about what Karl Rove says. Whatever problems she has, the Republicans are in a much worse position. This election is going to be decided by moderate swing voters in the Midwest, a lot of white Catholics, people who are economically sensitive, and Republicans have lost those people already. They're viewed much the same way the Democrats were at the height of their disarray in the 1980s--just out of touch.
That segment of the population is the type of segment that right now has a somewhat negative view of Hillary but will come around to her in the end. She's always been in the center of defense-related matters, which appeals to them. Democrats close the sale with those voters on the economy, health care, education. She has a natural advantage on those issues because she's a woman, and she polls well among independent women. But a lot of the men still just don't like her. But she can win them on kitchen-table issues, and they'll hold their noses and vote for her, even if they will never love her.
As a starting point, it depends where the high negatives come from. If they come from the candidate himself, that's a much bigger challenge than if they come from the overall political environment. You could have somebody who, for whatever reason, isn't viewed very positively, but if the overall environment is good for him or her, it doesn't have much of an impact. But if the overall environment is bad, like it was for the Republicans in 2006, it's much harder to separate yourself from that.
When it comes from the candidate, I think it takes a fairly significant investment, mainly through television and mail to redefine him, and it needs to be done usually in a vacuum. If you have other candidates saying nasty things about you the whole time, it becomes very difficult. But if a candidate has enough resources to overwhelm what the other candidates are saying, even just for a few weeks, you can do it.
Once I was working in a gubernatorial primary and the candidate had run before and had high negatives. We did focus groups to see where those negatives came from, and it turned out that people didn't really understand the candidate's personal story, had misconceptions about the candidate's family, things like that. So we ran an aggressive advertising campaign before anyone else did, and after about a month it had had a huge impact in lowering the candidate's negatives. That's a nice situation to be in, but you often can't do that.
Another example would be Mark Kennedy, against Amy Klobuchar [in the 2006 Senate campaign in Minnesota]. He had high negatives from his [2004 congressional] race against Patty Wetterling, and if you go back and look at his ads, he's trying to reintroduce himself as a nice family guy, good sense of humor, so forth. But he wasn't successful in doing that because he didn't have a vacuum, and the national environment was bad.
So it's not impossible to kind of move your negatives, but it does require resources and fortuitous circumstances. Sometimes it really just can't be done.