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Don’t Count Her Out

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"Can Hillary Clinton win?" That is one of the most common questions in American politics these days, except among people who flatly declare, "There is no way Hillary Clinton can win."

All but the most committed Republicans acknowledge the difficulty of their party's winning the White House next year. Four of the five times since World War II that a party has had a chance to win three consecutive presidential races, "time for a change" sentiment prevented it. (The exception was George H.W. Bush's 1988 election at the end of Ronald Reagan's second term.)

Heading into 2008, the Republican brand is undoubtedly tarnished. That's why the NBC News/Wall Street Journal and CBS/New York Times polls conducted this month have given the Democrats advantages of 13 and 16 points, respectively, on the generic presidential ballot question, with the former also giving Democrats a 12-point lead on the generic congressional test.

Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is widely derided as "too polarizing." Although there is no definitive way to measure the size of the anti-Hillary vote, a number of reasonable gauges exist that, together, produce an educated guess. Is Clinton's die-hard opposition more than 50 percent of the electorate, about 50 percent, or under 50 percent? Or, is it close to the percentage of voters who wouldn't cast ballots for any Democrat for president, no matter who the nominee was?

One way to measure the opposition is to look at Clinton's "unfavorable" ratings, because presumably those who would never consider voting for her would say they have a negative opinion of her. In a poll conducted this month by CNN/Opinion Research, 39 percent of adults had an unfavorable opinion of Clinton. So did 40 percent in the CBS/New York Times poll and 45 percent in a Fox/Opinion Dynamics survey. The September NBC/Wall Street Journal found 42 percent of respondents voicing a negative view of Clinton. So, using the worst number for Clinton, from the Fox poll, the anti-Clinton vote might be 45 percent.

A second approach is to ask people directly if they would vote for Clinton. In the July CBS/New York Times poll, 34 percent of registered voters said they would "definitely not" vote for Clinton. In the September Fox poll, 42 percent of registered voters said they would "never" vote for Clinton, and 39 percent said they would have trouble sleeping at night if she were president. Again taking the worst number for Clinton, 42 percent of voters say that they are hard-core anti-Clinton.

A third way is to simply match Clinton up in trial heats with a variety of Republican candidates. The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey -- conducted by veteran pollsters Peter Hart, a Democrat, and Neil Newhouse, a Republican -- tested Clinton against four Republicans. She led former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee by 14 points, 50 percent to 36 percent; led former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 13 points, 51 percent to 38 percent; led former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee by 9 points, 50 percent to 41 percent; and led former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani by 7 points, 49 percent to 42 percent.

The CNN/Opinion Research poll put Clinton 13 points ahead of Thompson, 55 percent to 42 percent, but just 4 points ahead of Giuliani, 50 percent to 46 percent, a statistical tie. A new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll conducted September 13-16 had Clinton just 2 points in front of Giuliani, 45 percent to 43 percent -- another statistical tie.

Clinton's potential opponents drew anywhere from 34 percent to 46 percent of the vote in these trial heats. And Pollster.com's trend estimates for Clinton's rivals ranged from a low of 39 percent to a high of 44 percent. Using this method to measure opposition to Clinton, the highest number is 46 percent.

Data and common sense suggest that Clinton has a hard-core level of opposition in the mid-40s -- at most 46 percent, but perhaps a bit lower. One might argue that a noncontroversial Democratic nominee (if such a thing is possible) might do better than Clinton. But, particularly since the playing field is tilted in the Democrats' favor for 2008, the evidence just doesn't support the idea that she cannot win.

 
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