Thursday, August 31, 2006

Hillary's image, 1993-2006

(Click on figure for a larger view.)

Hillary Rodham Clinton's public image is very much in the news with this week's Time cover story, so let's take a quick look at one of the longer running public figures. Sen. Clinton is an unusual public figure both in terms of the length of the time series of data we have on her, and in her changing roles in politics. These changes stand out pretty clearly in her favorability ratings above.

After a typically positive view of the new first lady, favorability fell quite a bit as Sen. Clinton took on a policy role (which failed) with the health care reform initiative in 1993-94. Her favorability actually declined a bit more by the end of 1995, before starting a sustained recovery through out 1996 and 1997.

The amazing Monica Lewinsky scandal gave her further boosts in favorability, in contrast with views of her husband. This trend peaked just as the impeachment trial ended.

As Sen. Clinton turned to running for the Senate from New York, public perception again changed from the positive views of 1998 to a balance more typical of political office seekers in 1999 and especially 2000. Now a candidate in her own right, favorability shifted from around 65% to slightly over 50% as she ran for office. For the most part, favorability towards Sen. Clinton has remained close to the 50% mark, with some recent rises in 2005 and most recently in 2006 some modest decline.

Sen. Clinton is often described as an intensly polarizing figure, and there is some evidence for this in the levels of her "unfavorable" ratings. These rose sharply in 1993-94 as she took on non-traditional policy roles while first lady. But having reached 40% unfavorable by 1995, they have rarely dropped below that. Only during the Lewinsky scandal did unfavorable drop to around 30%. Since then it has remained in the ball park of 40%, but at times rising to around 45%. While not a measure of the intensity of these feelings, the data certainly show that Sen. Clinton has been viewed unfavorably by a consistent 40% of the population for the last six years. This of course is one of the difficulties she faces in a race for national office.

Those national favorability numbers set the stage for a possible run for the White House in 2008. But how has she fared in the state she represents in the Senate, New York? Below are job approval figures from samples of New York state since she became Senator.

Here Sen. Clinton's success at winning over voters is clear. After initially withholding judgement, New Yorkers have come to approve of her handling of her job as Senator by better than 2-1 margins. The rise has been slow but steady until 2005, when approval peaked at just over 60%. Since then there has been some fall off of approval, to about 55%.

As with her unfavorable ratings, there is a steady contingent of about 30% of New Yorkers who have consistently disapproved of the her handling of her job. This has varied by as much as 8 points, but represents a stable resevoir of opposition.

Given that Sen. Clinton seems to be coasting to reelection, the decline in approval is worth watching. Is that due to presidential ambitions hurting her at home, or is it her support for the war or is it simply renewed partisanship as the Senate election draws nearer? And how will a big win in November translate into both state and national perceptions of Sen. Clinton as she considers a 2008 bid for the White House? Ahhh.. wait for more data.

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