Attempting to understand Hillary Clinton’s favourability ratings

In every election since 1992 the candidate with the highest favourability rating has won the US election, with Gallop polls showing every victor polling above fifty percent favourability before the election. Hillary Clinton has struggled to get anywhere close to the fifty percent mark since announcing her candidacy in April 2015, a failure that may have cost her the presidency?

Her ratings collapse coincided with her entering the race. Gallop poll data shows that in April 2013 she had a 64% favourability rating among likely voters and 91% among Democrats, and she had been consistently sustaining ratings in the mid 60%’s from 2009-2012 while serving as Secretary of State. She maintained these ratings throughout the initial Senate investigation on Benghazi in January 2013 and the strong media personal media criticism that went alongside it. However, by 2015 Hillary Clinton’s favourability ratings had slowly fallen to 50% as focus shifted towards an expected presidential campaign, and by June 2015 they had dropped sharply down nine points to 41% with a 44% unfavorability rating just months after launching her campaign for to become President of the United States in April.’s average favourability polling over the last 18 months’ tracks how her personal polling has continued to remain in the 40% range, but her unfavorability ratings have continued to climb reaching nearly 55% by November 2016.

In the media, this negative favourability towards Hillary’s candidacy has been consistently framed as being self-inflicted damage caused by both the Benghazi and email scandals that have affected her campaign, and others during her husband’s presidency. But this narrative does not correlate, there is a mismatch between the mediation of these events and the impacts on her favourability poll ratings. For example, the scandal about her emails only went public in July 2015 a month after her favourability rating had already fallen to a level which has been consistent ever since, and the same lack of correlation is reflected in timelines of the Benghazi investigation and polling. Political scandals often have short time frames and impacts with the media moving onto new stories with little lasting impact, with intense and sustained media interest required to keep the scandal in the front of people’s minds. While in the media frenzy of a US election these scandals sustained media interest and were perhaps reflected in the increases in unfavourability over the election period they might not tell the whole story.

An alternative explanation was put forward by Nelson that Hillary’s changing favourability ratings is directly related to how well she is conforming to gender expectations:

“When she was a traditional First Lady, she was popular; when she was gracious in defeat, accepting the Secretary of State job, she was popular; and when she was a Cabinet official who generally stayed out of the day-to-day political fights of Obama’s first term, she was at her most popular ever (Nelson 2016).”

However as soon as Hillary starts to step outside those boundaries of accepted behaviour and tries to be more politically active her favourability ratings plummet. Brescoll and Okimoto support these observations. Their study found female political candidates face significant negative perceptions for the act of seeking power, while male candidates do not. Cultural stereotypes of women expect them to be communal, supportive and sensitive; when women break outside of these stereotypes they are framed as deviant and power obsessed. When female politicians try to take a more emotive approach they receive media coverage of a consistently different tone, being framed as demonstrating emotional irrationality and a lack of leadership and control. Hillary is aware of this process; Nelson quotes her observation:

“When I’m actually doing the work, I get re-elected with 67 percent of the vote running for re-election in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again”.

Psychological accessibility of political judgements is more important in building favourability towards a candidate than the quantity or quality of those attributes, with the simplest core emotional response to a candidacy being more important and impactful than more detailed and nuanced reflections. This seems reflected in Hillary’s personal polling. Likely voters suggest they think she is qualified (55%) and has the temperament (53%) to be US President, only 29% of people trust her, fundamentally undermining her legitimacy and favourability. In a presidential race that is as complex and as divisive as this one there are many factors that affect an outcome. Gender and the voting publics perceptions of female politicians may have played a more important role than is often discussed in public and media discourse.