A long way to go.

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Overthinking Clinton's Favorability Numbers

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch of the Day to the Upshot’s Nate Cohn. He has a terrific take on Hillary Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable polling numbers -- which are mediocre at best -- and what they mean for her prospects in 2016. Short version:

  • Clinton has “as strong a position as any primary candidate in history.” Yup. There isn't even the suggestion of a real warning sign out there.
  • General elections are mainly about fundamentals, not candidates. Exactly correct. That’s not the best news for Clinton; some forecasters now see a toss-up election, and others think it leans slightly to the Republicans.

Of course, candidates and their campaigns can matter in general elections. But as Clinton demonstrates, favorability isn’t some sort of fixed starting point that predicts how candidates will do in future elections. In fact, favorability ratings rise and fall all the time, depending on new information and political context.

That's also true for Republican candidates with mediocre favorability numbers (Jeb Bush, for example). If Bush wins the nomination, Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) will find things to love about him. If it’s a good year for Republicans, then lots of independents and quite a few Democrats also are going to discover reasons to like him.

Cohn is correct that early polling might pick up on something that will have an effect months later, in general-election voting. It’s just very hard, and probably impossible, to know which polling results reflect something real and which are only a reaction to whatever is in the news.

Consider, for example, the Clinton e-mail scandal. If nothing new happens between now and fall 2016, this imbroglio will almost certainly be forgotten outside of the bubble of conservatives who were never going to consider voting for the Democrat anyway. But if fresh revelations make this a bigger story, she could be harmed, maybe even enough to cost her the election. We won’t learn anything about that, however, by looking at her poll numbers now.

So thinking about how Clinton, Bush, or any other candidate will perform in 2016 requires a good appreciation for the limited importance of candidates in presidential general elections, and good political judgement. Polling, at this point, won’t really help.

And: Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net