What's Behind Hillary Clinton's Drop in the Polls?

The Democratic front-runner's problems may run deeper than her use of a private e-mail address and server when she was secretary of state.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waits to be introduced at a campaign event at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on September 10, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

All summer long, Hillary Clinton's support from Democratic voters has withered. In poll after poll, the slide has been captured in close to real time as the former secretary of state campaigns for president while struggling to contain the fallout from revelations that she used a private e-mail address and server on which she conducted government business. 

Ongoing revelations in the e-mail story—which was first broken by the New York Times on March 2—correlate with Clinton's steadily declining poll numbers and were again cited by the Washington Post on Monday with the release of the latest national survey showing a steep drop in Democratic support for Clinton.

“The period since the last survey coincides with the news that the FBI is looking into the security of e-mails sent over a private server Clinton used when she was secretary of state, as well as an intense media focus on her response to the controversy,” the Post's Karen Tumulty wrote. “The episode has raised questions about her judgment and revived memories of the scandals that plagued the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton, in the 1990s.”

The Post poll is the latest in a series showing an erosion of support for Clinton and highlights the front-runner's problems with Democratic women. In just eight weeks, Clinton has lost 29 percent support from Democratic-leaning female voters, according to the survey.

Charting Clinton's tumbling poll numbers by gender, age, or income group is easily enough done. The question remains whether the the e-mail story is the root cause or a symptom of larger issues facing her candidacy. 

The candidate offered apologies last week for using her own e-mail server while at the State Department. Some observers argue that even if the FBI exonerates Clinton in coming months, her poll troubles signal deeper problems for her candidacy than the domain name in her former e-mail address. 

Selling authenticity

Like Donald Trump in the Republican field, Clinton has become the most polarizing candidate for members of her own party. Eleven percent of Democrats polled in an August Quinnipiac University survey said they would never vote for her, the most for any Democratic candidate. Worse, “liar” was the first word that came to mind when respondents were asked what they thought of Clinton, according to the poll. In part, that result from the way Clinton has comported herself on the campaign trail, especially in a year when voters seem to crave outsiders. 

“The same force and energy that is giving a lift to Donald Trump is dooming Hillary Clinton, and that is authenticity,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a Republican strategist and former aide to Mitt Romney, told the New York Times. “Experience does not matter to them. What matters is you appear genuine.”

A scripted appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show didn't help, especially as it aired on the same day that Biden made headlines for his emotional interview with Stephen Colbert. 

Mind the enthusiasm gap

If the primary election were decided by the size of the crowds who turn out to see a given candidate speak, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would have already sewn up the Democratic nomination. But beyond the numbers disparity evident at almost every event the two candidates have held, some prominent Democrats see Clinton as hostage to her own inevitability, while Sanders's rallies have taken on the aura of a movement. 

That response to Clinton from Democrats yet to commit to her candidacy was summed up in a Sept. 11 CNN poll that found that those who described themselves as being “enthusiastic“ about her winning the nomination had fallen from 60 percent in April to 43 percent. 

Is the Clinton brand tarnished?

Though Clinton's favorable ratings looked promising before she declared herself a candidate, their swift decline may be indicative of something many observers simply overlooked this year. 

“We have underestimated how much the electorate is suffering from Bush/Clinton fatigue,” Bloomberg Politics polling and political advertising analyst Ken Goldstein said.

For Clinton, that dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that she's running against Sanders, someone who can lay claim to being the candidate of change much the way Barack Obama did in 2008. The catch is that in this cycle, Clinton is now linked to two previous administrations. 

“It's difficult running a campaign to be a previous president's third term, let alone running a third term for two of them,” Goldstein said.  

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