Monday, February 29, 2016

Handicapping Hillary

A few days ago on the Young Turks, Cenk Uygur offered the proposition that Hillary Clinton was a weak general-election candidate for the Democrats. His analysis mirrors one I've been offering for months in various internet venues. Cenk, it seems, has run into some resistance to this; Saturday, he and the rest of the TYT gang contemplated the question of whether they'd been too hard on Hillary. They haven't. If anything, they've been going far too easy on her on the question of her electability. I've gotten often ferocious feedback from both Hillary backers and from Democrats who are anxious about tearing down the candidate they think will eventually win the nomination and have to face the Republicans. But every day seems to bring more information that further buttresses my conclusion. Though it is, strictly speaking, outside the central focus of this blog, I thought I'd spend some time here outlining that conclusion and the facts, inferences and perceptions that led me to it.

Two Obama terms hang heavily over the present election. Any 8-year presidency is a significant drag on the candidate of the incumbent party. After so long, people just get tired of an administration. In the modern era, George Bush Sr. managed to succeed an 8-year Reagan in 1988 then one must go all the way back to Harry Truman, who barely squeaked by Thomas Dewey in 1948, to find the next-most-recent example of three sequential administrations of the same party.

The evidence for the drag being exerted by the Obama administration is all around us. In the 2014 midterm congressional elections, Democrats stayed home in droves, resulting in the lowest voter turnout since 1942 (and Republicans recapturing the U.S. Senate). In the current cycle, the Democratic debates have consistently underperformed the Republican debates, usually by significant margins. The highest-rated GOP debate (from August) drew an astonishing 24 million viewers while the highest-rated Democratic debate (in Oct.) only managed 15.3 million. The lowest-rated Republican debate (14 Jan.) still drew 11.1 million. The debate at the bottom of the Democratic pile (from 4 Feb.) had only 4.5 million viewers.[1] Participation in the Democratic primaries and caucuses to date has been down across the board, by huge margins everywhere except New Hampshire (where it was only down 13% from 2008). At the same time, Republican participation has been up by huge margins in every contest so far.[2]

Electing a candidate of a two-term incumbent party is like pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill. Hillary Clinton, the candidate many Democrats seem poised to anoint their 2016 standard-bearer, comes already laden with so much baggage she'd have a hard time just getting all of it up that hill without the rock. And as the campaign continues on, she just keeps adding more and more to it. 

Some observations from ringside: Clinton is like the absolute worst breed of politician. Cynical and manipulative, she'll say just about anything to win the moment without regard for how it squares with what she said the day before, without any concern for whether it even remotely approximates reality and with no thought as to the larger or longer-term implications of what she's saying, meaning she is both undisciplined and, let's just put the matter bluntly, an imbecile. But while so many of her peers on the national stage have managed to hone the politician's favorite pastime (lying) into a fine art, Clinton absolutely oozes insincerity. Everything that comes out of her positively reeks of phoniness and fakery. And, of course, much of what comes out of her is, which only makes this impression worse. Among other things, this renders her entirely incapable of effectively selling all her cynical flipping and flopping about. In her quest for power, she regularly--and easily--sheds old personas in favor of new ones based strictly on temporary need. She's against gay marriage then she's for it; she's for the Iraq war then she's against it; she's for the Keystone XL pipeline then she's against it; she's for harsh mandatory minimum sentences (and in 2008 slammed candidate Obama for calling for reducing or eliminating them) then she's against them. Back in April, Domenico Montanaro did an excellent breakdown of Clinton's "evolution" on the matter of right-wing "free trade" deals over the years; she always says she's against them whenever an election looms then "evolves" into supporting them when in office.

Though specifically focused on those "free trade" deals, that article is a perfect microcosm of Clinton's entire political career. It also points to another unsavory and damaging trait: To the extent that Clinton holds to any principles at all, they're ones that are anathema to the base of her own party. Clinton is a rightist on most issues of significant import. She's a war-monger who, in real time, never met an intervention she didn't like, a National Security Statist, who voted for the USA PATRIOT Act over and over again,[3] a Tough On Crime-er who pimped the right's garbage "superpredator" meme in the '90s while supporting policies that helped turn the U.S. into the major jailer on Earth. She aggressively prostitutes herself and her potential future administration to every entrenched Big Money interest who will drop a few million quarters in her collection box.

In close quarters, Clinton is easily frustrated and when challenged to any real extent, she tends to collapse into a desperate morass of transparent deceptions and diversions. When, in a November debate, the question of her Wall Street backers came up--an entirely predictable question, given her opponent, and one for which the candidate should be prepared--she responded by saying most of the donors to her campaign are women and then invoking 9/11 as an excuse for aiding Wall Street. Utterly unresponsive non sequiturs aimed solely at getting her past the moment by drawing cheap applause from her followers. In a debate earlier this month, it was noted that Clinton had far more support from Democratic elected officials than her opponent, to which Sanders replied, "She has the entire Establishment or almost the entire Establishment behind her. That's a fact. I don't deny it." Clinton didn't like being associated with the "E" word and shot back with, "honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the Establishment." And so on. This sort of thing may allow her to get by a moment with Sanders, a fellow who has, to his own disadvantage, bent over backwards not to attack her, but a Trump, a Cruz, a Rubio certainly won't show that kind of restraint and such non-responses won't fly with a general-election viewership either.

In a race that has been loaded with an inordinately high number of presidential hopefuls, Clinton has proven the second-most disliked candidate. Only Republican Donald Trump scores worse. A quick trip to Huffpost Pollster shows Clinton averaging a favorability rating of only 40%; except for a handful of anomalous polls, Clinton's favorables have been declining since Sept. 2010, below 50% since July 2014 and underwater--more people disliking her than liking her--since April 2015. Trump's favorability rating has been below 50% in every poll in the Huffpost archive, which has Trump polls going back to May. At present, Trump is averaging a 36.3% favorability rating, 57.7% unfavorable.

Conventional wisdom holds that a candidate whose approval is consistently below 50% is a dead duck in a two-way general. The upcoming election holds the potential for an unusual challenge to that, a clash between two such wildly unpopular candidates. It's a recipe for a very low-turnout election, which, of course, favors Republicans, among whom Clinton has been a focus of sustained hate since she first burst on the national scene in 1992.[4] They may not like Trump but they outright despise Clinton and the prospect of her in the White House will have them showing up in droves to vote against her (that's also part of why she'd make an utterly ineffective president). On the other side, eight years of Obama is already repressing turnout to an alarming degree. In any election falling at the end of a two-term presidency, the opposition party tries to tie the candidate of the incumbent party as closely as possible to the fading incumbent president, presenting that candidate as merely a third term for that president. It usually works. In this cycle, the basic connection is obvious--Clinton was an Obama employee for years--but Republicans won't even have to try to tie her to the president; she's done it for them. Instead of trying to steer her own course, Clinton has spent weeks trying to portray herself as Obama's twin, praising  him and his administration, standing up for his "legacy," promising to perpetuate it. In the context of the larger election, this is suicidal. No one is energized by the prospect of yet another Obama term starring a faux-bama. Clinton did it because she wanted to win the South Carolina primary and needed the vote of the state's black population, among whom Obama is still extremely popular. It worked. She inflicted potentially quite serious harm on her own national prospects by tying herself to a lame duck with which the public has grown weary merely so she could win a big victory in a safe red state that won't vote for her or any other Democrat in the general anyway--one of the many examples of how Clinton authors her own eventual destruction.

A Quinnipiac poll released a few days ago matched Clinton and Sanders against the major Republican contenders. Clinton was in a statistical tie with Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, the latter of whom dropped out of the race right after that poll went to press, but she was defeated by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich. A full 58% of respondents said they held an unfavorable view of Clinton. Sanders, meanwhile, defeated every Republican and 51%, including even 22% of Republicans, said they had a favorable view of the candidate (in his House and Senate races in Vermont, Sanders always manages to draw a significant Republican crossover vote). Sanders attracted a much higher percentage of independents and even a slightly higher Republican crossover in these match-ups.

Head-to-head polling at this early date isn't going to tell one with any certainty who will win in November but it can give one a picture of where things stand and, over time, where they're heading. Early in the campaign, Clinton led all of the Republicans by healthy margins but her standing in this polling has progressively disintegrated, matching the even longer-term disintegration of her favorability ratings. Both have been on their way down over an extended period and though she's already fallen behind the Republicans in the head-to-head, she hasn't, with over 8 months still to go, even hit any sort of bottom yet. Sanders' favorability ratings, by contrast, started in the basement, as few knew who he was when he entered the race, and has gone up, up, up; it's currently averaging 50% with only 38.9% unfavorable and hasn't plateau'd yet. Unfortunately, there's a sparsity of head-to-head polling for him--one of the ways the corporate press has treated Clinton as inevitable was by rarely ever bothering to commission head-to-head polls featuring Sanders. What does exist is spotty compared to that available for Clinton but it does show Sanders performing substantially better than Clinton against potential opponents.

While the Obama presidency casts a long shadow over the coming election, another element undoubtedly exerting a considerable drag on the Democratic vote is a less-prominent nugget found in the guts of various polls over the last few months: over 70% of Democratic respondents tell pollsters that regardless of who they, themselves, support, they believe Clinton will be the eventual nominee. The notion of Clinton's inevitability, a phantom which Clinton, her surrogates and the corporate press have worked so hard to instill, can't help but be demoralizing to those who don't like Clinton. In her short-sighted effort to defeat Sanders, Clinton has been offering a sort of "No, We Can't" campaign. She has reinvented herself as a candidate pimping many quite watered-down variants on Sanders' policies while arguing the Sanders versions, which are extraordinarily popular, simply aren't politically realistic and should be discarded. She's very aggressively argued that Democrats shouldn't even try to pass single-payer healthcare because it would lead to a contentious debate--the ultimate conservative argument that, if accepted, would preclude ever accomplishing much of anything for simple lack of trying. This "No We Can't" talk is, to note the obvious, defeatist--about as uninspiring a campaign slogan as one could invent--and can't help but alienate huge swathes of potential Democratic voters Clinton would need to win a general.

At the moment, Clinton continues to benefit from the widespread belief--another Clinton-generated phantom--that she would have the best chance of winning the general. For example, Quinnipiac asked, "Would you say that Hillary Clinton would have a good chance of defeating the Republican nominee in the general election for President or not?" 85% of Democrats said yes. Asked the same question of Sanders, only 69% said yes. Something that makes this particularly interesting is that this is the same poll that shows Clinton losing to those Republicans while Sanders beats them all. What's more, Sanders, in those match-ups with Republicans, drew a larger percentage of the Democratic vote than Clinton. 61% of respondents said they thought Sanders "cares about the needs and problems" of people like themselves vs. only 42% for Clinton; asked if the candidates shared the respondents' values, 50% said Sanders did,[5] while only 39% said this of Clinton; 68% said Sanders was "honest and trustworthy" vs. only 30% who would say that of Clinton (among Democrats, 87% said this of Sanders vs. 65% for Clinton). Matching a pattern that has appeared in polling on this campaign, the very polls in which Democrats assert a belief that Clinton is more electable than Sanders are the ones debunking that notion.

How does all this add up?

While Clinton has gleefully put the other side's Obama noose around her own neck, Sanders isn't as subject to that dynamic. He's always been to the left of Obama--as Clinton is stupidly fond of noting, he thought Obama should face a primary challenge in 2012--and he's an outsider, a maverick, an independent who very visibly has the entire Democratic Establishment against him. Anyone who accused him of just being the third Obama term would most likely be greeted with laughter. There's no way to entirely escape the drag exerted by a two-term presidency, to be sure, but Sanders would definitely be the least affected by it.

Sanders is also an energizing candidate all his own. People are excited by him. He's an inspiring figure who attracts larger audiences than any other candidate, has brought into the political process lots of people who wouldn't ordinarily participate and has managed to field a serious presidential campaign against a Big Money-backed candidate on small campaign contributions from ordinary people--an incredible accomplishment. He has a broadly popular program that allows him to draw plenty of independents and Republicans to his cause, which is reflected in both his past electoral successes in Vermont and his polling. He's a candidate people want to vote for, rather than just another they don't really like but end up backing because they think the other side is even worse. He's hope. And because Clinton represents the very corruption Sanders is battling, a Clinton win would itself prove quite demoralizing. It would be read--and not unfairly either--as a corrupt Democratic Establishment in league with a corrupt press helping a corrupt candidate with a bottomless bank account[6] provided by corrupt Big Money interests breaking Excalibur. Breaking hope.

When it comes to Clinton, she's an energizing candidate too--remarkably energizing, in fact. It's just that those she energizes are on the other side, while she demoralizes her own and goes out of her way to alienate Sanders supporters. Anyone tired of Obama--and that's most people--certainly won't find anything to support in her effort to convince everyone she'll be the third Obama term. For those who prefer the right-wing side of her and pine for more warfare, more prisons, more government surveillance, more "free trade" to hasten the deindustrialization of the U.S. in the service of corporate profits, why support her when the full-strength version is available over in the GOP? At the same time, Clinton has reinvented herself this season as an attenuated copy of Sanders but if one finds those policies appealing, why choose the watered-down version from a candidate who doesn't really believe in them anyway and would discard them as soon as there was no election in front of her when the real thing is available? If one just wants to win, why choose a candidate whose numbers have already sank beneath her Republican rivals and are still falling, one who is off-putting to everyone outside the party yellow dogs while energizing the opposition in a year in which it's already going to be difficult to organize a successful campaign? It isn't just that Sanders would have a much easier time in the general; it's the fact that, even if one manages to "win" with Clinton--a very long shot--one hasn't really won anything.

Clinton's profile is that of a loser candidate. She wouldn't stand a chance against any remotely credible alternative. Many think that's quite a significant caveat given the Crazy Train that is the 2016 GOP but before being too dismissive of their chances, it would be prudent to consider for a moment what people have accepted as "credible" in the past. None of this means Clinton definitely would lose but she is a very weak general election candidate in a year in which a much stronger one is available.

That's my take on it.

--j.

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[1] Democratic debate ratings:
13 Oct. 2015 - 15.3 million viewers
14 Nov., 2015 - 8.5 million viewers
19 Dec., 2015 - 7.8 million viewers
17 Jan., 2016  - 10.2 million viewers
4 Feb., 2016 - 4.5 million viewers
11 Feb., 2016 - 8.03 million viewers

Republican debates:
6 Aug., 2015 - 24 million viewers
16 Sept., 2015 - 23 million viewers
28 Oct., 2015 - 14 million viewers
10 Nov., 2015 - 13.5 million viewers
15 Dec., 2015 - 18.2 million viewers
14 Jan., 2016 - 11.1 million viewers
28 Jan., 2016 - 12.5 million viewers
6 Feb., 2016 - 13.2 million viewers
13 Feb., 2016 - 11.62 million viewers
25 Feb., 2016 - 14.5 million viewers

[2] Turnout in Democratic Primaries:
Iowa caucus - 240,000 caucusgoers in 2008 vs. 171,000 this year
New Hampshire - 288,672 voters in 2008 vs. 250,983 this year
Nevada - 120,000 caucusgoers in 2008 vs. 80,000 this year
South Carolina - 532,000 voters in 2008 vs. 367,000 this year

Turnout in Republican Primaries:
Iowa - 122,000 in 2012 vs. 186,000 this year
New Hampshire - 248,475 in 2012 vs. 284,120 this year
South Carolina - 603,000 in 2012 vs. 737,000 this year
Nevada - 33,000 in 2012 vs. 75,000 this year

[3] And at a debate in October said she didn't regret doing so, calling the measure "necessary."

[4] Back then, Bill Clinton was the Democratic presidential candidate but multiple speakers took to the podium at the Republican National Convention to denounce Hillary Clinton. As going after a candidate's wife in this systematic manner really had no precedent in presidential politics, it raised a lot of questions and provoked a great deal of discussion.

[5] And, in fact, Sanders' views reflect those of the broad center of America. That his number here isn't even higher looks an awful lot like a major failure of media.

[6] All that money from all those Big Money interests is the one advantage in a general Clinton has over Sanders. It definitely isn't one about which to brag.

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