Why You'll Like Clinton, Eventually
This Candidate, you're going to believe, can really connect with the American people. He/she is a new kind of [Democrat/Republican]. This Candidate’s qualifications for the presidency aren't just impressive. It's uncanny how well This Candidate’s skills and history seem exactly made for the challenges the U.S. faces in 2016. Most politicians just spout cliches, you'll think, but This Candidate talks with, not at, us.
Oh, and on a personal level: What about that heartbreaking anecdote about This Candidate’s family history? Why didn’t This Candidate talk more about the personal stuff earlier? People would have realized then just how special he/she is. And what a refreshing collection of technocrats, oddballs and respected veterans are running This Candidate’s campaign!
Some things in elections are difficult to predict, but the cycle of enthusiasm for presidential nominees isn't one of them. It's real, foreseeable and practically irresistible. As John Sides said on Wednesday in the Washington Post, “campaigns almost always rally each party’s voters behind their nominee.” This is in the context of what he predicts will be a temporary (and modest) decline in Hillary Clinton’s polling numbers among Democrats. But the ebb-and-flow pattern is even more relevant to the generally dismal polling numbers the Republican candidates have compiled in this presidential cycle.
The way we feel about politicians is affected by context. A good example is to look back at John Kerry’s favorable/unfavorable ratings (here from Gallup) over time. Back before 2004, the year of his first presidential campaign, Kerry was mostly unknown, but those who knew him liked him. He has a rating of 30 percent favorable and 9 percent unfavorable.
As his campaign for the Democratic nomination began, his unfavorability spiked (with both Republicans and Howard Dean supporters learning who he was probably and not liking him), leaving him with a rating of 31 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable.
Then he won a bunch of primaries, and his "you'll love this candidate" moment arrived in spring 2004, when he peaked at 61 percent favorable. By the fall, his unfavorable rating had almost doubled from 23 percent to 44 percent, and after losing to President George Bush he fell further. By July 2005, he was at 42 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable.
His standing recovered once he returned to being a senator -- with 48 percent favorability in spring 2013. After he became secretary of state, a (seemingly) less partisan position, he got a big bump up. Last time Gallup checked, in February 2014, he was at 55 percent favorable, 34 percent unfavorable. It isn't that Kerry became more appealing or less appealing. It's that we respond to political context more than we do to individuals. It just feels as if we’re reacting to those politicians.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. The temporary enthusiasm we will feel for our party’s future nominee is healthy for democracy. It’s healthy, too, when our critical faculties re-engage along with disillusion. It’s even fine that most of us skip the critical stage by tuning out politics for a few years. After all, the ability of most citizens to safely ignore politics most of the time is a sign of the stability and success of the polity.
So there's no need to worry much about the favorability ratings of presidential candidates right now, especially with regard to the general election. And [This Candidate] shouldn’t be worried, either.
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Katy Roberts at email@example.com