Clinton's Popularity Declines--But Still Beats her GOP Rivals' (POLL)

Hillary Clinton's personal popularity has dropped to virtually an even split

— -- Hillary Clinton’s personal popularity has dropped to virtually an even split in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, marking her potential vulnerability as a presidential candidate. Yet she still surpasses her possible Republican rivals in favorability and vote preference alike.

The number of Americans who express a favorable opinion of Clinton is down from a record 67 percent just over than two years ago to 49 percent now – its lowest since her unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Nearly as many, 46 percent, see her unfavorably, up 20 percentage points from its low during her term as secretary of state.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

Yet Clinton still is better off than six potential GOP candidates tested in this survey, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates: All of them have higher unfavorable than favorable scores, trouble for any public figure. And two for the first time are seen unfavorably by more than half of Americans.

Jeb Bush’s favorable-unfavorable rating is 33-53 percent; Chris Christie’s, 26-51 percent. Compared with Clinton, more Americans have yet to form an opinion of Bush, Christie, or, especially, the others tested in this poll: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. Still, Cruz’s favorability rating, like Bush’s, is underwater by 20 points, Rubio’s by 14, Paul’s by 13 and Walker’s – the least-known – by 7. Christie’s worst off, 25 points in the hole.

PRIMARY PREFERENCE – Bush, regardless, has advanced to 21 percent support for the nomination in a crowded potential Republican field, up 7 points from December to a significant lead over his closest competitors, Walker, with 13 percent (up 6 points), and Cruz, 12 percent. That’s among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who are registered to vote.

The 11 other possible GOP candidates tested in the poll all are in the single digits: Rubio, Paul and Mike Huckabee, with 8 percent support apiece; Christie, with 7; retired surgeon Ben Carson, with 6; and 1 or 2 percent each for Carly Fiorina, Lindsay Graham, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Clinton continues to cruise on the Democratic side, with 66 percent support against five others – more than quintuple her nearest potential rivals, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, with 12 percent apiece. (Warren this week said she won’t run.)

Bernie Sanders has 5 percent; Jim Webb, 1 percent; and Martin O’Malley less than half a percent. Clinton does even better in the expectations game: 72 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they expect her to win her party’s nomination. On the far more closely contested GOP side, a third of leaned Republicans expect Bush to win. That, of course, is if they run. Of all these, just Cruz has announced his candidacy. ABC’s Political Unit reports that Paul, Rubio and Clinton may do so this month, Bush in late spring or summer.

PRESIDENTIAL PREFERENCE – Head-to-head, Clinton leads Bush by 12 points among registered voters, 53-41 percent, essentially unchanged in the past year. She has 54 to 56 percent support against Rubio, Walker and Cruz alike, vs. their 39 to 40 percent. The lack of differentiation on the GOP side – 39 to 41 percent across potential candidates – looks like the base GOP vote, from which the party’s candidates will seek to build as the campaign progresses, especially in the general election. They may do so not only by changing minds but by differential turnout; Republicans have a better record of actually showing up at the polls. That said, Clinton’s position vs. Bush is distinctly better than Obama’s vs. Mitt Romney at about this time in 2011, 48-44 percent.

One advantage for Clinton is early enthusiasm. Among registered voters who support her against Bush, 83 percent describe themselves as enthusiastic about doing so, including 42 percent who are “very” enthusiastic. Among Bush supporters in a matchup against Clinton, many fewer are enthusiastic, 68 percent; and fewer still, 12 percent, are very enthusiastic. To a large degree that’s to be expected; Bush’s supporters vs. Clinton include many Republicans who’d like to see someone else in those shoes, so it’s no wonder they’re less enthusiastic.

That said, the result marks the universal need for any victor in a hard-fought primary campaign to salve intraparty wounds. Almost universally, it does happen (see Romney, 2012; Obama, 2008). 

THE FAMILY – Clinton has further help from the family. A remarkable 73 percent of Americans now say they approve of the way her husband handled his job as president from 1993-2001 – Bill Clinton’s highest retrospective rating on record, as well as higher than any he received while in office. Far fewer, 47 percent, approve of the way Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, handled his presidency from 2001-2009. In their general election matchup, Clinton gets overwhelming support from her husband’s fans, as does Bush from his brother’s.

But, as noted, there are more of the former. An ABC/Post poll in January tested the legacy issue another way, with consonant results. Americans by 23 vs. 14 percent said they’d be more rather than less likely to support Clinton because her husband was president. In contrast, they were less rather than more likely to vote for Bush given his brother and father’s time in office, 33 vs. 11 percent. That’s a +9-point attribute for Clinton, -22 for Bush. (The rest, majorities in both cases, said it made no difference.)

ATTRIBUTES – A perceived attribute that hurt Clinton in 2008 may be less damaging this time around. Americans by 55-37 percent stress “experience” over “new ideas,” a shift from 2008, when new ideas, expressed as the mantra of “change,” tipped experience – by 48-43 percent in pre-election polling – and helped vault Obama to victory. Change, more generally, may have less cachet, with the economy in far better shape than in 2008. In pre-election polling that year, Obama won “change” voters by 90-8 percent, while John McCain won likely voters focused on experience by 86-11 percent.

In this poll, by contrast, it’s not much of a differentiating factor in candidate preferences. Among other attributes, 64 percent of Americans see Clinton as a strong leader; at the same time, 55 percent say she has new ideas. But she’s more vulnerable on other characteristics: The public divides evenly on whether or not she “shares your values,” understands the problems of average Americans or is honest and trustworthy. Moreover, along with the decline in her overall favorability, Clinton’s reputation for being honest and trustworthy, and for empathy, both are down 7 points from last June.

FAVE/GROUPS – Clinton’s decline in favorability may have been predictable, in that it’s occurred as she’s moved from being the nation’s top diplomat back to the partisan world of a presidential campaign. It’s occurred chiefly among Republicans, among whom she’s down by 19 points just since January 2014, and Republican-leaning independents. A challenge for her is that 49 percent of all independents see her unfavorably.

That plummets to 14 percent of Democrats. Each of the Republicans tested in this poll has greater difficulties. One in three Republicans sees Bush unfavorably; it’s the same for Paul and higher still for Christie, 41 percent – within their own party. Among independents, half see Bush unfavorably, roughly ditto for Christie (53 percent) and Cruz (48 percent).

Even with his lead in primary preference, Bush has problems with some core GOP constituencies, as do Christie and Paul. Fifty-five percent of evangelical white Protestants have an unfavorable opinion of Christie; 40 percent see Bush unfavorably, 36 percent Paul – and evangelicals accounted for 52 percent of GOP primary voters in 2012 exit polls. Among “very” conservatives, moreover, 48 percent express negative views of Bush and Christie alike. Paul does better in this group, as do Rubio, Walker, and, especially, Cruz. (Given the substantial numbers who have no opinion on most of the potential Republican candidates, it’s most fruitful at this stage to look at their unfavorable scores, since those are people who need not only to be brought aboard, but to be turned around.)

PRIMARY/GROUPS – The division of groups in GOP primary preferences is instructive. Bush pulls in support from 31 percent of moderates, best by a long shot; Christie’s next with 10 percent. But moderates generally don’t predominate in Republican primaries and caucuses, and it’s a different story among very conservatives – a group in which Bush lands in seventh place, with just 8 percent support.

Cruz and Walker have the highest support from very conservatives, 20 and 17 percent, respectively, than Rubio and Huckabee, with 12 and 11 percent. (Very conservatives accounted for 34 percent of GOP primary voters in 2012 exit polls; moderates, 24 percent.) Bush, it’s worth noting, gets 24 percent support from evangelical white Protestants (clearly not from the four in 10 who see him unfavorably), followed by Cruz (17 percent), Huckabee and Walker (14 percent each). While Bush is a Catholic, his brother remains highly popular among evangelicals; 76 percent in this group approve of George W. Bush’s job performance, nearly 30 points higher than among the public overall.

Most notable on the Democratic side are Clinton’s gender and racial gaps: She’s supported by 73 percent of women in her hypothetical primary matchup, vs. 54 percent of men; and by 76 percent of nonwhites, vs. 57 percent of whites.

GENERAL/GROUPS – Some of these same patterns play out in general election preferences. Using the Clinton vs. Bush matchup as an illustration, she leads by 23 points, 59-36 percent, among women, while men divide much more closely, 46-48 percent.

Clinton’s supported by 93 percent of blacks – the most monolithic Democratic group – and 78 percent of nonwhites overall, while Bush holds an 11-point lead among whites. Obama lost whites by 20 points in 2012 but still won the election, testament to the growing clout of nonwhite voters. Clinton’s better position among whites today relies on a group identified by the analyst Ron Brownstein as crucial to Democratic prospects – college-educated white women. She leads Bush in this group by 23 points, while trailing among all other whites by 19 points.

Obama, by contrast, lost college-educated white women by 6 points. Bush, for his part, leads Clinton by 10 points among seniors, a group that turns our reliably, eroding her 38-point lead among adults under 40, whose actual participation is sketchier. These are very early days, though. Clinton was the onetime frontrunner for her party’s nomination in 2008, if not so prohibitively as now, and that didn’t work out for her; nor is there any telling whether Bush will push through to the nomination or be this year’s Rudy Giuliani. Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that, as much as voting blocs, issues matter. Some of them were assessed in this poll as well, as will be covered in a forthcoming analysis.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone March 26-29, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Including design effects, results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample, 4 points for registered voters and 6 points for registered leaned Democrats and registered leaned Republicans alike. Partisan divisions are 30-22-38 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.