Media outlets are wrong in their constant assertion that Hillary Clinton, like Donald Trump, is one of the most unpopular major party presidential candidates ever. This is a classic case of where asking the wrong questions with the wrong reference point leads to framing bias rather than a statistical absolute.
In fact, Hillary Clinton is the most popular female candidate for president ever. A woman candidate for president has never received as much of the popular vote in a major party primary, won a major party primary by such a wide percentage, or had such a high favorability rating. Why is this worth looking at rather than lumping her in with the all the other major party candidates in history? Simple: They were all men. One could argue that they are appropriate comparators for Trump, a white man, similarly situated to all major party presidential candidates ever except one, Barack Obama. On the other hand, for Hillary Clinton even to get to this point, the point at which she is a major party nominee, one could just as easily posit that she had to be viewed more favorably than any of her predecessors even if, directly compared to them, she may appear less favorably rated. She had to overcome what had previously been an insurmountable barrier to entry by being a woman popular enough to beat out her male primary competitors and qualify to compete in the ultimate popularity contest of the general election.
Nobody can reliably handicap the favorability ratings for the effects of sexism, so nobody can offer a definitive answer for just how popular Hillary Clinton is on an absolute scale. The most reliable answer we have is the fact that Hillary Clinton won her primary, making her the most popular Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. While the media portrays Bernie Sanders as the charismatic leader of a new movement, and Hillary as a nominee only reluctantly embraced, it is fact that Sanders is less popular than Clinton because she garnered 3.8 million more votes in their head-to-head contest.
Moreover, there do not appear to be reliable favorability ratings for every single presidential candidate in the history of our country, rendering the “ever” the media likes to tack on highly suspect. And, even if there were, there would still be problems with this supposed axiom as a statistical truism. For example, if voters had been polled for favorability ratings during the first century of our nation’s history, the polling sample would have been made up entirely of white men determining the popularity of other white men. For the next fifty years, that would have changed to all men (although black men and other men of color were often in fact prevented from voting) weighing in on favorability of the white male presidential nominees. In 1920, women finally won the right to vote, and for almost another entire century, this expanded electorate nominated only white men as major party nominees. However, as voting rights have been made more equal in fact as well as law, the diversity of the electorate has increased. Hillary has polled extremely well among a diverse electorate and better than many of the prior major party nominees. Sanders, as with Trump, garnered high approval ratings from white men, but Hillary Clinton, the first major party female nominee, does not. But we should not allow her lack of popularity with white men—from whom she has managed to wrest a coveted position of power—to invisibly drive the narrative that she is unpopular, unlikable, and, therefore, as the narrative would go, unpresidential.
Far from being a contender for the most hated candidate ever, it is easy to make the case that Hillary Clinton has become more popular over time, not less. In 2008, she lost the Democratic primary by a slim margin, getting approximately 48 percent of the popular vote to Barack Obama’s 48.1 percent. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary with 55 percent of the popular vote to Bernie Sanders’s 43 percent. Nate Silver has argued that, when controlling for a variety of factors, Hillary Clinton was actually one of the top presidential primary vote-getters of the last 36 years in both 2008 and 2016.
My point here is not to definitively establish that Hillary Clinton is, in fact, the most popular presidential candidate ever, but, rather, to demonstrate just how much is missed by the media’s constant rendition that she is one of the least. It is yet another misguided attempt at false equivalency between Trump and Clinton—one I hope will be forever proven wrong on November 8.