What’s more, high unfavorable ratings in January aren’t necessarily the kiss of death in November. According to a recent analysis from Gallup, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush started out their presidential campaigns with high unfavorable ratings: Clinton had a 49 percent unfavorable rating at the outset of 1992, and Bush was at 47 percent unfavorable at the start of the ’04 campaign. Approval ratings tend to change over the course of a campaign, and Hillary’s probably will, too. Although it’s conventional wisdom that everyone has already made up their minds about the junior senator from New York, her favorable/unfavorable ratings over the past fifteen years have fluctuated. And while it’s true that a candidate’s negatives tend to go up over the course of a presidential campaign, Gallup argues that might not apply to Hillary, since she’s already so well known. “Typically, a winning presidential candidate’s favorable rating is only slightly more positive than negative on the eve of the election,” Gallup concludes. “Clinton would only need to boost her positives a few points to achieve that position.”
How Gallup and Penn—and Edwards and Obama, for that matter—assess Clinton’s electability is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is how Democratic caucusgoers and primary voters view it, since a good number of them will likely take that view into account when deciding which candidate to support. And on this metric, Hillary is in very good shape. We already know about Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, but they’re not the only ones who are deeming Hillary electable. While an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 39 percent of Democrats saying Hillary was the most electable candidate (compared with 32 percent who picked Obama and 22 percent who picked Edwards), another NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in September found that the percentage of Democrats who viewed Hillary as the Democrats’ best bet in November had jumped to 54 percent (with Obama dropping to 18 percent and Edwards to 15 percent). Over the course of those same five months, Hillary nearly doubled her lead over Edwards and quadrupled her lead over Obama.
So how did Hillary do it? How, in less than a year, did she go from unelectable albatross—in the eyes of Democratic voters, at least—to their party’s best bet to take back the White House? Part of the answer has to do with the difference between the idea and the reality of Hillary. In the abstract, or in the cross-tabs of a polling report, she can appear to be the cold, calculating, evasive, polarizing figure her critics have long painted her to be. But in the flesh, on the stump in Iowa and New Hampshire and onstage at the debates with her vast herd of rivals, she has shown herself to be a commanding and formidable politician. More than that, she’s been ahead the whole time, and that, by itself, has boosted the perception of her electability. There’s a snowballing effect, or what an economist might call a “cumulative advantage,” which simply means the bigger you are, the bigger you get, like a Hollywood blockbuster or a chain of office-supply stores. Hillary’s the dominant Democratic Party brand at the moment. But it’s far from an invincible position. If her electability advantage is little more than a reflection of her place in the polls, then it could disappear as quickly as her leads over Obama and Edwards in Iowa and New Hampshire have been shrinking. A single upset, and Hillary’s electability problem comes roaring right back.