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After 23 years in the public eye, is there anything we don’t know about Hillary Clinton? Her actions and personal qualities have been scrutinized by an army of journalists for more than two decades, but hardly anyone has summarized the public’s judgments about her.
We have attempted to do this in a new AEI Public Opinion Study. We have reviewed almost 5,000 poll questions about every aspect of her career starting with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. We have looked at the public’s assessment of her as First Lady, then as US Senator, and finally as Secretary of State. How has the public viewed her career?
The simple answer is that the public’s verdict is largely favorable at every stage of her public career. That doesn’t mean she will be elected president if she decides to run, though the pollsters have been asking about a possible presidential career for her since 1992! Here’s what the polls show.
Hillary as First Lady: First Ladies generally receive positive marks, and Hillary Clinton is no exception. In 11 Gallup questions asked from 1992 to 2000, between 54 percent and 80 percent approved of the way she handled her job as First Lady. She often lagged in comparisons with Barbara Bush, but her marks were still high. Many of us remember the controversies over her commodities dealings and Whitewater, but these did not dent her ratings significantly. Democrats and Republicans had similar assessments of her early on. Partisan differences began to appear during her involvement in health care reform.
Hillary as a senatorial candidate: When she began her listening tour in 1999, most Americans thought she was interested in a Senate seat as a stepping stone to higher offices, and Americans were neither especially enthusiastic nor especially negative about her candidacy.
Hillary as Senator from NY State: New Yorkers, however, liked her performance in office. Several survey organizations tracked New Yorkers’ opinions during her tenure, and they generally show improvement over time. In Quinnipiac’s poll of registered New York voters, an impressive two-thirds approved of the way she was handling her job as Senator toward the end of her term, up from 38 percent in February 2001.
Hillary for President: The first question asked about this appears to be one from 1992, when only 19 percent told Time/Yankelovich interviewers she had what it takes to be president, while 40 percent said she did not. But Americans have largely come around to the idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency: the most recent question, from the Pew Research Center in spring 2014, shows that 51 percent would like to see her run in 2016.
Hillary as Secretary of State: Although significant numbers of Americans are troubled by the events in Benghazi, her ratings while she was Secretary of State were generally high. In Fox News’ polls of registered voters, for example, between 56 and 67 percent approved of the way she handled her job as Secretary of State.
Hillary’s personal qualities: Americans view her as highly intelligent, competent, hard-working, and a good role model. She is thought to be likeable, but other politicians (including Barack Obama) do better on that score. Doubts about her honesty first become apparent in the 1994-1996 period, and they have not disappeared. Another weakness is that she is seen as someone who says what people want to hear rather than what she believes. This is probably true of most politicians today, but it is still something Clinton should be wary of should she indeed run for president.
The bottom line: We don’t know whether she will run. To us she looks like a strong candidate but not a sure bet.
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