Polls at this point in the presidential race do not mean a thing. That is, of course, except when they do. The latest Quinnipiac University poll of three swing states – Virginia, Iowa, and Colorado – is one such poll. In all three states, the poll shows that Clinton’s favorability ratings have plummeted, voters no longer trust her, and, against three of the GOP’s top-tier candidates, she is losing. No, polls at this stage of the race are not predictive, but they do set expectations and they focus the minds of the donor class who don’t want to throw good money after bad. If this survey is a portent of things to come, it foreshadows a general election campaign that will make the president’s brutal, no-holds-barred 2012 reelection effort appear the height of cordiality by comparison.
It’s not the head-to-head matchups in Quinnipiac’s latest survey that should trouble Democrats – it’s the rapid deterioration of Clinton’s image among voters. Even in the state that proved definitively for the left that demography is destiny, Virginia, majorities have an unfavorable opinion of Hillary Clinton. Substantial majorities told pollsters they do not trust the prohibitive Democratic presidential nominee. But the worst numbers, the one that is surely prompting bouts of hushed panic among Democratic operatives, were the responses generated when voters were asked if Clinton “cares about the needs and problems of people like you.” Among swing-state voters in Iowa, Virginia, and Colorado, solid majorities believed that Clinton did not care about them. By contrast, the 2012 exit polls revealed that Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama on every issue with the exception of the intangible matter of caring more about the little guy. Obama beat Romney on that issue by an astounding 63-point margin, and he rode that perceived empathy all the way into another four-year term in the White House.
Hillary Clinton has been a prominent figure in American politics for a quarter-century. She is already, perhaps unalterably, defined in the minds of voters. The Republican candidates, meanwhile, are not. Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter observed that Clinton and her fellow Democrats would do all within their power over the course of the nearly yearlong presidential campaign to define the nominee in negative terms. The natural headwinds confronting Democrats in their effort to secure a third consecutive term in the White House will ensure that the process of “defining” the GOP nominee is a pitiless one. But those natural headwinds are compounded by the fact that Hillary Clinton is not the political talent that Obama was.
It’s a bit trite, but it’s worth considering the substantial “coolness” deficit that Democrats are about to face. After almost eight years of branding itself as a vibrant, youthful institution whose leader was as apt to be seen in the Oval Office as he was on the set of a late-night comedy program, Democrats are about to hemorrhage some of that accumulated hipness. The tortured effort by some young progressives in the media to craft a trendy brand around the octogenarian Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg exposes the terrifying shallowness of the left’s bench of fashionable political figures. Democrats who watched a recent video released by Hillary Clinton, in which the candidate hawked her campaign’s branded “chillery” beer cozy and declared that she was “just chilling” herself, must have cringed; an android in a Philip K. Dick novel struggling to mimic human emotion could display more charisma and sincerity. Like the 82-year-old “Notorious R.B.G.,” Clinton will require a transparently fabricated campaign to be perceived as current and something that appeals to a younger generation. Among Democrats with ample national name recognition, only Joe Biden effortlessly projects the kind of approachability and nonchalance that drew young voters to Barack Obama, and he is not in the race. Yet.
If Clinton sacrifices even a modest amount of support among young voters, that must be made up on other fronts. The demographic perhaps most amenable to Clinton’s overtures are women, and the former secretary of state has already ramped up the gender-centric attacks on her adversaries. Speaking to a group of Kentucky voters, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently observed that Clinton pitch relies extensively on the candidate’s gender and has focused conspicuously on women’s issues. “You may recall my election last year,” McConnell said of his vanquished opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, “the gender card alone is not enough.” Clinton’s team responded by playing the gender card with even more reckless abandon.
“There is a gender card being played in this campaign,” Clinton wrote on Facebook. “It’s played every time Republicans vote against giving women equal pay, deny families access to affordable child care or family leave, refuse to let women make decisions about their health or have access to free contraception.” Her team followed up with a web-based advertisement featuring McConnell’s remarks and scolding several members of the GOP’s 2016 field for supporting measures Clinton’s campaign dubbed “anti-women.”
The other pillar of Barack Obama’s coalition that Clinton must ensure remains intact if she is to win in 2016 are the minority voters who turned out in substantial numbers to ensure the nation’s first African-American president won two terms in the White House. The time will come when the Clinton campaign must turn the Hispanic community against the Republican nominee – a substantial task if the GOP nominates Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio – but, for now, the former secretary of state is focused on her support among African-American Democrats.
In June, Clinton called voter identification laws and efforts to curtail early voting to within two weeks of Election Day “a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people and young people from one end of our country to the other.” She went further by contending that Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Rick Perry were “deliberately trying to stop” black voters from exercising the franchise. “Note the language here,” Fox News analyst Chris Stirewalt observed. “It’s not a misguided effort with an unfortunate result, it is a deliberate effort to prevent minorities from voting. That’s not just racist, that’s evil.”
This is a theme that you can expect the likely Democratic nominee to pound repeatedly over the course of her campaign in the uphill effort to ensure African-American turnout in 2016 matches the rates set in 2008 and 2012.
The stakes are high in 2016 – more so for Democrats than they were in 2012, when Barack Obama’s allies went so far as to accuse Mitt Romney of complicity in negligent homicide. We may come to look back on that campaign as an epoch of civility. If the GOP nominates a competent candidate, and they have a variety from which to choose, Hillary Clinton and her allies will have to scorch the earth in order to win. The torches are already lit.