It’s just one poll, on a complex legal issue, with rather convoluted wording, but the answers the Washington Post obtained on a question about whether Americans thought Hillary Clinton ought to have faced prosecution for her email practices are still rather shocking. By a 56-35 margin, Americans (the poll was of adults, not registered or likely voters) disapproved of “[FBI chief James] Comey’s recommendation that Clinton should NOT be charged with a crime.” Which presumably means they’d just as soon see Hillary Clinton in the dock as in the White House. The internals of this small poll are equally shocking: 31 percent of Democrats seem to be disappointed HRC isn’t being hauled in front of a grand jury. Perhaps if Bernie Sanders does indeed endorse Clinton tomorrow, that number might quickly decline. But it should still be unsettling for Democrats.
Even if you treat this poll as just another measurement of Clinton’s approval/disapproval ratings, it offers a sharp contrast to the general-election trial heats showing her pretty consistently leading Donald Trump (the Post’s own most recent survey had her up by ten points). One might deduce there are a significant number of Americans who think HRC should be at risk of losing her personal freedom but still prefer her to Trump.
More generally, it’s an indicator of something we should have already realized: Hillary Clinton is not going to win the presidency based on her personal popularity, and probably won’t win if the election is a pure referendum on Barack Obama (yes, his job approval rating is now back up above 50 percent, but there’s always some “time for a change” sentiment after two White House terms). But she can win an election framed as a “two futures” choice between herself and her party and Trump and his party. In that context, most of the 31 percent of Democrats who allegedly think she should face criminal charges would almost certainly come home, along with a sizable number of independents and perhaps a decent number of college-educated Republicans who are or who could quickly become horrified at the idea of a Trump administration.
The strategic question for Team Clinton is whether she should devote resources to rehabilitating her image (countering the many hundreds of millions of dollars of conservative and sometimes liberal investments in tarnishing it), or instead just continue her already-robust efforts to go after Trump and his (lest we forget) very unpopular party with a clawhammer. In the end, it doesn’t much matter whether the winner on November 8 is all that popular. Barack Obama was very popular when he was first elected in 2008, and you see how far that got him the minute he lost his supermajority in the Senate. Everything we know from public-opinion research indicates voters perceive this as an important, high-stakes election. They aren’t going to just stay at home, and the value of their votes is not diminished by lack of enthusiasm. You can speculate all day long (as many Republicans are undoubtedly doing privately if not publicly) that a different Republican presidential nominee could take down Clinton easily without really knowing if that’s true. After all, the GOP has its own popularity problems, some of which (e.g., mistrust over the party’s intentions toward Social Security and Medicare or its zest for Middle Eastern wars) Trump might actually mitigate.
Without any question, Republicans inside and beyond the Trump campaign will look at data points like the Post poll and intensify their attacks on Clinton’s trustworthiness. Trump himself will be sure to describe his opponent as “Crooked Hillary” at every opportunity during the Republican convention next week. But sometimes that just isn’t enough. A quarter-century ago in Louisiana, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate defeated Trump supporter David Duke via the informal slogan “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” If push comes to shove, the same sentiment could elect Hillary Clinton no matter what voters think about those emails.