Rick & Hillary: Who do you think they are?

For sixteen months now, Hillary Clinton has based her Senate candidacy on one belief only: She will win on the issues. Reporters have tried, in a thousand ways, to get her to say something, anything, about herself, begged her to take part in that eternal New York campaign ritual that calls on candidates not so much to take positions as to embody and celebrate some aspect of our collective personality.

Hillary has run against personality. From the moment she entered the race, her advisers have believed that their guarded candidate couldn’t win a personality fight, against either the bumptious Rudy or the nice guy Rick. But she could win an issues fight. So out they rolled, one after the other.

Rick Lazio’s campaign has tilted toward talking about character – more hers than his. You can’t trust her, his ads have said. This election, he told reporters recently, will “determine whether or not character still counts in public service, whether or not integrity matters.”

So with a month to go, which matters more? The results of a statewide New York poll conducted in late September suggest that, unlike in the presidential race, character trumps issues. The poll – conducted jointly by the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, and the Polling Company, a Republican group – found, for example, that respondents who like or dislike either candidate do so more on the basis of personal characteristics than of issues.

With his convention speech – its march of issues and the “I’m my own man” line – Al Gore managed to turn the presidential election into a race about substance instead of style. But Hillary couldn’t quite do that in New York. First of all, she is, and to a certain segment of voters always will be, an issue herself. And second, too much focus on issues is not the New York way. Two Octobers ago, no one could say where Al D’Amato and Chuck Schumer stood on Social Security, but everyone knew who called whom a putzhead.

Character matters, but public emphasis on character issues is not the automatic winner for Lazio that one might assume. How can this be? For one thing, it’s because the poll – which has Hillary leading narrowly, by 47 percent to 45 percent, including leaners – shows that the number of Hillary admirers is now equal to the number of Hillary haters. When people were asked, for example, whether their basic view of Hillary was favorable or unfavorable, favorable won, 52 to 43 percent. Within those categories, 28 percent had a strongly favorable view of her and 29 percent a strongly unfavorable view. These two groups now cancel each other out. “We’ve always felt,” says Clinton pollster Mark Penn, “that there are a lot of people out there with enthusiasm for her. It’s been one of the most undercovered stories of this campaign.”

There’s another reason, too, which is that it looks like people define character more broadly than the media does. Or at least that honesty is just one of several factors most people weigh in deciding how to vote. This poll shows that voters who like Hillary Clinton do so for a range of reasons, even if those reasons can be vague. When we asked people who viewed her favorably what it was they liked about her, 13 percent said – well, they just liked her. Another 9 percent said they liked her because she was strong, 7 percent said knowledgeable, and smaller percentages gave answers like smart, caring, hardworking, capable, and poised. The reasons people didn’t like her were mostly the ones you’d expect: not from New York, according to 24 percent, and not trustworthy, said 22 percent.

The attributes respondents said they liked about Lazio – whose overall favorable-to-unfavorable rating was 45 to 36 percent – were similarly mixed. To 22 percent, the best thing about him is that he’s from New York; 13 percent cited his experience in office in New York, and 9 percent think he has new ideas. Among those who viewed him unfavorably, 9 percent said it was because he’s attacked Hillary; another 9 percent didn’t like his debate performance.

Character is further complicated by split decisions on which candidate possesses what traits. Respondents regarded Hillary as more ambitious (55 to 22 percent) and more out of touch (38 to 30 percent). And Lazio was indeed judged more honest, by 44 to 28 percent. But respondents also regard Hillary as more intelligent by 59 to 19 percent and more senatorial by 45 to 36 percent. So the verdict on character-related questions is actually mixed.

“Everybody wants politicians to be honest,” says Jef Pollock of the Global Strategy Group. “But they don’t believe politicians are by and large honest. So character is also about Is this someone I can like over the next six years and let into my living room?

None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton has won the hearts of New York voters. But the poll results do suggest that, with her nonstop campaigning and bottomless desire for the job, she has worn away at some of the animus against her. We asked people why they thought, at this late date, she was running for the Senate. The largest number was “Don’t know,” at 29 percent. But 25 percent believed she was running because she’d be a great senator, and 17 percent said she was in the race because she cares about the people of New York. Sixteen percent said she was deflecting attention from her husband’s impeachment, and 12 percent said she wanted to get away from Bill.

Also, by 40 to 15 percent, more people said their opinion of her had gotten better over the past year and a half than said it had gotten worse (42 percent said their view of her hadn’t changed). People remain strongly divided, though, on her motive for running. Forty-two percent said she wanted to serve New York, and 46 percent said she was using the race as a stepping stone for the presidency.

And finally, the carpetbag still looms fairly large. When asked what their chief hesitation in backing Hillary would be, 32 percent said it was because she’s not from New York, nearly double the “Clinton fatigue” number of 17 percent. The campaign has done little to eat into people’s resistance to her – the reserve of dislike is pretty much the size it’s always been.

Those kinds of numbers are so-so for her, and because her campaign chose from the beginning to ignore her problems and hope for the best, so-so is about all she could hope for. But in the relentless drive on issues – children, health care, more schools, new Medicare formula, upstate Internet access, media violence, Palestinian school books – the Clinton campaign scored undeniable success. New York asked respondents which candidate would do a better job in six issue areas. Hillary won four of them, often by large margins: on improving schools, 52 to 35 percent; improving health care, 60 to 31 percent; protecting Medicare and Social Security, 52 to 31 percent; and getting the state its fair share from Washington, 47 to 36 percent. Lazio prevailed only on lowering taxes, a gimme for any breathing Republican, by 48 to 27 percent, while creating jobs in New York State came out a statistical tie.

“The Hillary strategy was the only one they could take,” says Mitchell Moss of New York University. “Ignore the negatives and overwhelm them with competence.”

The Clinton campaign, these numbers suggest, has done one other thing well. With only four weeks to go, the perceptions people have of Lazio either remain vague or have been shaped to a considerable degree by the Clinton team’s negative advertising. “Her likability, or lack of it, is now rivaled by the lack of certainty many voters have about his qualifications for the job of senator,” says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick of the Polling Company.

Clinton wouldn’t have been able to do that with Giuliani, whose persona and positions were at least as well known to New Yorkers as her own. Though his continued candidacy might have given them reason to change their minds, 49 percent said they would vote for Giuliani if a hypothetical race were held today, as opposed to 42 percent for Clinton.

As for Lazio, fully 55 percent don’t know his position on abortion. Fifteen percent labeled him as pro-choice but against partial-birth abortions (which is closest to his actual position), while 13 percent thought he was against abortion except to save the mother’s life, and 10 percent believed he was pro-life. In other words, 78 percent of respondents either didn’t know his position or had it wrong. When New York asked people what their chief hesitation would be in voting for him, the top answer, at 30 percent, was that they didn’t know his positions on the issues. One in five voters still has no opinion of him one way or the other.

This has happened partly because of July and August Clinton-campaign commercials that made Lazio’s position an issue – in addition to being against partial-birth abortion, he opposes any federal funding for abortions. And partly it’s that Lazio got such a late start in this race and hasn’t articulated his view clearly. Especially in New York, abortion is one of those rare issues on which liberals can make conservatives – even moderate conservatives – appear to be cosmically evil, whether they are or not.

Lazio’s challenge in the next month, says Republican consultant Joseph Mercurio, is to firm up the picture voters have of him and lay off the Hillary-bashing. “Everybody’s got that already,” Mercurio says. “Her unfavorable rating is going to be there, even among people who are ultimately going to vote for her. If he doesn’t start an alternative conversation, that he’s an acceptable, moderate, northeastern Republican, and voters want to send a message that Republicans in Washington should be more like George Pataki and less like Jesse Helms, then he’s going the wrong way. That’s a good conversation for him to have.”

The race is still close. The undecided voters, 8 percent in this survey, are, as they have been for months, the prize. Who are they, and what do they think?

The number of undecided voters, says Pollock, is highest in the suburbs. They are more female than male, by about 60 to 40 percent. They tend to be members of no party. And they are wealthier, with household incomes averaging more than $60,000.

Undecided respondents viewed Hillary a little more favorably than the sample as a whole – 46 percent had a favorable opinion of her, and 29 percent an unfavorable one. With respect to Lazio, though, undecided voters were all over the place. Just 20 percent viewed him favorably, 32 percent viewed him unfavorably, and the rest – nearly half – had no opinion. “They’re frozen,” Pollock says. “They’d like to like him, but they’re not sure. That’s one reason they’re undecided.” This suggests that the Lazio campaign hasn’t given undecided voters a reason to back him yet, but if the campaign comes up with a compelling one, the potential votes are there.

The foggy image undecided voters have of Lazio is borne out in other questions. Among the entire sample, 30 percent said they didn’t know his positions on the issues. Undecided voters were even more unclear: Seventy-nine percent didn’t know his position on abortion, compared with 55 percent overall (although it should be noted that the undecided sample size was rather small).

Even so, Lazio does best in the suburbs and upstate, where voters who have made up their minds tilt strongly toward him. City residents and upstaters view Hillary more favorably than unfavorably. But in the suburbs, she’s seen more unfavorably, by 54 to 37 percent. And in the head-to-head matchup, Lazio thumps her in the ‘burbs, 52 to 33 percent.

The city, of course, is where Hillary is strongest. All the earlier problems, over the FALN and Suha Arafat, seem ironed out now. Her support among Jews is three-to-one, and a third of Jewish respondents said seeing Joe Lieberman campaign with her would make them more likely to vote for her (again, a small sample size). Still, she leads Lazio 63 to 30 here and will most likely hit the 65 or 70 percent a Democrat needs. Upstate, Lazio leads by just 50 to 45 percent. That’s where he’ll be spending most of his final four weeks, and it’s where he needs to be, because a five-point upstate lead for a Republican won’t cut it. But as these numbers show and as most people watching this race closely agree, he needs to do more than just show up.

Rick & Hillary: Who do you think they are?