Weakening ratings for Hillary Clinton present opportunities for her potential Republican opponents, even as their own contest morphs into an all-out free-for-all, with Jeb Bush surrendering his frontrunner status in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.
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While still far ahead for her party’s nomination, Clinton faces challenges. She’s slipped underwater in personal favorability for the first time since her unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2008. She’s deeper in the hole for honesty and trustworthiness – down 5 points in just two months and 12 points in the last year. And Americans by 17- to 24-point margins disapprove of her handling of recent questions on her use of personal e-mail while secretary of state, her handling of the Benghazi attack in Libya and fundraising by her family’s foundation.
Indeed, while Bush has lost ground in the contest for the GOP nomination, Clinton does less well against him in a head-to-head matchup. The gap between them has closed from 12 points to three – 47-44 percent, Clinton-Bush, among registered voters, vs. 53-41 percent two months ago.
Bush, at the same time, has even greater difficulties with personal favorability than Clinton, and a far weaker home base. He’s lost 11 points in support for the nomination among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who are registered to vote, from a front-running 21 percent in March to 10 percent now, smack alongside Scott Walker and Rand Paul (11 percent apiece) and Marco Rubio (10 percent). Mike Huckabee has 9 percent support, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, 8 percent each.
Bush’s decline has come among Republicans (as opposed to GOP-leaning independents) and evangelicals – groups with high turnout in GOP primaries and caucuses – as well as among moderates. His difficulties include baggage from his brother’s administration; the public by an 18-point margin disapproves of how he’s answered questions about whether he would have ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And 55 percent of Americans see Bush as out of touch with the concerns of average Americans – a greater weakness for him than this measure is for Clinton.
That said, the questions facing Clinton – particularly regarding Benghazi and her foundation’s fundraising – are more apt than a hypothetical Iraq do-over to be seen as legitimate issues in the 2016 campaign. Her decline vs. Bush among registered voters, from 53 percent in March to 47 percent now, is a significant one.
The churn in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, is fascinating: A weaker result for Bush in his base, a better result for him against Clinton. Add to that one more finding: Whatever their current positions, were it a Bush-Clinton matchup, the public by 55-39 percent thinks Clinton would win.
Bush, of course, hasn’t even announced his candidacy; he’s expected to do so later this month. Among those who are in the race, it’s Rubio who’s shown the most movement – up 7 points in personal favorability, down 7 in unfavorable views, since the last ABC/Post poll completed March 29. His 10 percent support for the nomination, while underwhelming in real terms, is numerically his highest in ABC/Post polls in the past year.
Rubio also has the distinction of being the only one of nine potential GOP candidates tested for favorability in this poll who’s not underwater in this most basic measure of popularity. But he has fairly low recognition overall – 31-31 percent, favorable-unfavorable, with the rest up in the air.
By comparison just more than half of Americans, 51 percent, see Bush unfavorably; he’s rated more negatively than positively by a 19-point margin. Nearly as many, 48 percent, see Chris Christie unfavorably, and he’s underwater by 26 points. The measuring stick is submerged by 19 points for Rick Santorum, 13 points for Huckabee and Cruz, 10 points for Walker and 9 for Paul.
That leaves one with the submarine trophy: Donald Trump, who’s announced that he’ll make his intentions known June 16. A remarkable 71 percent of Americans see him unfavorably, just 16 percent favorably. After the economic dislocation of the last eight years, being associated with the phrase “you’re fired” may not be the best career move for a would-be candidate.
On the Democratic side, 45 percent of Americans see Clinton favorably overall, vs. 49 percent unfavorably. Her favorable rating has plummeted by 22 points from 67 percent during her popular tenure as secretary of state.
Perhaps most alarmingly for her campaign, the number who see Clinton as honest and trustworthy has dropped from 53 percent a year ago, then 46 percent two months ago, to 41 percent now. Fifty-two percent now don’t see her as honest and trustworthy, the most, again, since April 2008. And while she’s 11 points underwater on this score, Bush is +5, 45-40 percent – not better than Clinton in being seen as honest, but less bad, with more undecided.
Some of this reflects the consequences of Clinton re-entering the political fray, but some is self-inflicted. Just 31 percent of Americans approve of the way she’s handled questions about her use of personal e-mail while secretary of state; 55 percent disapprove. It’s 33-50 percent, approve-disapprove, on her handling of questions on Benghazi and on her family’s foundation.
Moreover, 48, 55 and 53 percent, respectively, call these legitimate issues in the campaign. (Forty-four percent see questions about whether Jeb Bush would have ordered the Iraq invasion as a legitimate issue.)
Whatever her difficulties, Clinton commands 62 percent support for the nomination among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who are registered to vote. Joe Biden has 14 percent support and Bernie Sanders steps into Elizabeth Warren’s shoes with 10 percent. (Having said she won’t run, Warren was left off the list in this survey.)
One potential differentiator is the extent to which a candidate is seen to “understand the problems of people like you” – something Clinton’s clearly focused on since announcing her candidacy. There’s good reason for that: Social psychology research has shown that gender stereotypes make it more challenging for a woman than for a man to be seen as competent and to be personally popular at the same time. And empathy can be an important political attribute; it was key to Barack Obama’s re-election over Mitt Romney in 2012.
Clinton’s efforts may be helping her: Even as she’s lost ground more generally, she’s held essentially steady on empathy. Forty-nine percent of Americans think she understands their problems, vs. 47 percent two months ago, before she announced her candidacy April 12.
It’s an attribute on which Clinton is rated considerably better than Bush – just 35 percent think he understands their problems, while 55 percent think he does not. Clinton has an 11-point comparative advantage on this question among independents and 18 points among moderates. And while whites are equally likely to see Clinton and Bush as empathetic, two-thirds of nonwhites say Clinton understands their problems, while just 28 percent say the same about Bush. A vast advantage among nonwhites, a growing slice of the electorate, is key for Clinton.
In a related question, the public divides, 44-42 percent, on what’s more important to them, a presidential candidate’s positions on the issues, or his or her empathy. And it cuts to vote: Clinton leads Bush by 54-36 percent among registered voters focused on a candidate who understands their problems, while it’s a 50-42 percent Bush-Clinton race among those more concerned with policy. Clinton’s focus on empathy, then, is likely to be a persistent feature of her campaign.
As noted, Clinton’s lost 12 points in being seen as honest and trustworthy since June 2014. That’s occurred disproportionately in three groups: college graduates (from 57 percent to 34 percent), white Catholics (from 50 to 27 percent; they’re a sometimes swing-voting group) and urban dwellers (from 67 to 47 percent).
Clinton's more likely to be seen as trustworthy in some of her core groups, including more women than men (49 vs. 32 percent) and more non-whites than whites (59 vs. 32 percent). Seven in 10 Democrats see her as trustworthy vs. 36 percent of independents and 14 percent of Republicans. But in each of these groups, her ratings have declined, at least numerically.
Notably, even among those who intend to vote for her in the Democratic primary, just 78 percent see Clinton as trustworthy. And her rating on this score is particularly weak among those who disapprove of her handling of questions about Clinton Foundation fundraising, personal e-mail and Benghazi.
Bush, for his part, is seen as honest and trustworthy by 53 percent of adults over 50 vs. just 37 percent of younger adults, and more so among college graduates than non-graduates, 55 vs. 40 percent.
On the legacy front, Clinton is somewhat more apt than Bush to be seen as her own person in policy terms. Sixty-six percent of Americans think she’d mainly come up with new policies rather than following those of her husband, Bill Clinton; 58 percent think she’d create new policies rather than follow Obama’s.
Comparable numbers are somewhat lower for Bush: Closer to half, 51 and 47 percent, respectively, think he’d have new policies rather than following those of his brother, George W. Bush, or his father, George Bush.
Both Clinton and Bush do better among registered voters who think they’ll create new policies. But the baggage for Bush is notably heavy: Among those who think he’d follow his brother’s policies, 70 percent support Clinton, vs. 18 percent for Bush.
Bush, then, has his own challenging path – seeking to establish his independence from his brother’s policies while at the same time not antagonizing George W. Bush’s fans within the Republican Party.
Bush's decline in support for his party’s nomination is broadly based, but notable among some groups. He’s down 18 points among evangelical white Protestants, 16 points among moderates and 12 points among Republicans (as opposed to GOP-leaning independents). He led in these groups in March, but with these declines he has fallen into the general pack.
In March, Bush, Walker and Cruz had the most support from conservatives, with Bush's support driven by those who identify themselves as somewhat rather than very conservative. Today, conservatives split between Walker, Rubio, Carson, Cruz and Huckabee, with Bush dropping behind. Bush even has moved to mid-pack among “somewhat” conservatives, with virtually no support from very conservative Republicans, a party mainstay.
One further result on the GOP side shows that most leaned Republicans don’t demand ideological purity: Just 19 percent say their nominee should “take only conservative positions,” while 71 percent say some moderate positions are OK. But even in the latter group, Bush gets just 11 percent support.
On the Democratic side, Clinton's lead in the primary has held essentially even and remains substantial. She has taken a hit among women - 62 percent support her now vs. 73 percent in March. She also continues to be particularly strong among racial and ethnic minorities, with 72 percent support vs. 56 percent among whites.
The most striking change in the head-to-head matchup between Clinton and Bush is a decline in Clinton’s support among women, from 59-36 percent in March to 49-43 percent now. Men continue to split, now 44-46 percent, Clinton-Bush.
The shift among women is generational; it’s occurred almost exclusively among women younger than age 50 – from 72-22 percent two months ago to 48-43 percent now. It’s also happened to a lesser extent among college educated white women, a potentially important voting group: They supported Clinton 57-34 percent in March, but now divide evenly, 45-46 percent.
Among other groups, Clinton’s gone from a 61-point margin among nonwhites, 78-17 percent, to a 47-point split, 70-23 percent; whites still break for Bush. A 48-43 percent Clinton-Bush split among independents in March is now 46-40 percent Bush-Clinton. And while more moderates support Clinton than Bush, 51-42 percent, that gap has declined from 24 to 9 points.
Another result underscores the influence of issues as well as candidate attributes. Among registered voters who think the federal government should pursue policies to reduce the income gap between wealthy and less well-off adults, two-thirds support Clinton. Among those who oppose government action, two-thirds back Bush. With that sort of differentiation, we’re sure to hear more about this issue – as well as empathy, honesty and the rest – in the campaign ahead.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone May 28-31, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including 836 registered voters. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample, and 4.0 for registered voters, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-22-36 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.