Recent polls show Hillary Clinton intensifying her lead over Obama (although it's early in the game), but other polls show that her favorable ratings with the general public have been plunging all year. This is potentially a dismal scenario for the Democrats: Clinton secures the nomination through massive spending, then enters the general election hobbled by negative public perception that leads to a GOP victory. The "Col. Tom Parkers" of politics are bringing her down, and they may take the Democratic Party with them.
Gallup has been tracking Sen. Clinton's public perception and its findings are devastating. 58% had a favorable impression at the start of 2007, while 40% saw her unfavorably. Now, after five months of positioning, those numbers have flipped: 52% have an unfavorable view while only 45% see her positively.
That's the sign of a catastrophic failure in her campaign strategy - a strategy that has alienated the Democratic base while failing to attract a mythical 'centrist' America. These poll results prove that.
(UPDATE: Newly released figures show "a bit of a recovery," in Gallup's words. See below for why these new numbers confirm my criticism of her team and her strategy, rather than contradict them.)
How could things be going so wrong for the Senator, given her much-vaunted campaign team? The goal of their endless "centrist" positioning has been to evade the "liberal" label, yet the #1 reason given for her negative perception is her "liberal views."
What's more, the stumbling attempts at triangulation are backfiring as much as I and others said they would. The other negatives leading to her plunge in approval include the fact that voters "don't trust her," they "think she is an opportunist," and "they think she is too wishy-washy, flip-flopping on the issues."
Does anybody think this team can help her change these perceptions?
I've been tough on the Senator in the past, especially for her triangulation on torture and her dangerous posturing over Iran. (And I certainly wasn't impressed by one of her supporter's moves on her behalf.) She's an extremely capable figure, however, and as long as she's a potential nominee these disastrous ratings serve no one.
These falling poll numbers raise the question: how did she - and the Democratic Party - come to be so ill-served by her advisors?
The answer may lie in the enormous political talents of Bill Clinton - the man they called "Elvis" - and in the mistaken belief that his advisors were a key part of his success. Hillary has drawn heavily from the ranks of Bill's advisors, a group that continues to take credit for electing him and keeping him in power.
I've argued the opposite in the past. Bill Clinton was the most brilliant natural politician of a generation, and yet he lost Congress and was never able to achieve a popular vote majority. There is no evidence that either his advisors or his 'centrist' strategy played a key role in his election, or that any 1990s Democratic strategy would still be relevant after the last six polarizing years.
Nevertheless, Hillary has signed on essentially the same team, and she's bought into the same 'triangulation' approach. It's a nakedly cynical strategy, and these poll numbers show that the public sees through it.
So why is she still doing it? For one thing, advisors like Mark Penn have a vested interest in promoting a corporate agenda that may be hurting her politically.
Think of it as the the Col. Tom Parker problem. Col. Tom managed Bill's namesake, the original Elvis. He promoted himself as a brilliant impresario, but the fact is that luck had a lot to do with his success. His best move was signing the most talented artist of a generation.
Col. Tom wasn't responsible for Elvis' success. In fact, the Colonel made the mistake of putting Elvis in those absurd Hollywood movies (who can forget him singing "Do the Clam" in Clambake?) while the Beatles and Dylan outstripped him and changed society forever.
It wasn't until Elvis bypassed Col. Tom in 1968 and starting making his own decisions that his career revived. (Some will remember: he began singing socially relevant songs and did a live TV special - and he stopped making those movies.)
Had the King followed the Colonel's advice he might have ended his life in obscurity. Oh, Col. Tom was good at some things - like getting songwriter credits for Elvis and taking a piece for himself - but he lacked vision for his artist.
Hillary's a very capable Senator, but she's no Elvis - and no Bill. Those gifts come once in a generation. She can call in her chips from large donor sources, and very possibly raise enough money to become the Democratic nominee. But does she have the vision and talent to become President? Not unless she pulls an Elvis by overruling her advisors and thinking for herself.
When a candidate's primary negative perception is that she's calculating and untrustworthy, she and her advisors should be addressing that issue first and foremost - with a bold stand or two (perhaps on a minor issue), and with some candid face time with Larry King or another interviewer. When she's seen as too political, her campaign should not get into a hissy fit with Obama's over comments made by a big donor like David Geffen.
Her campaign should be positioning her as the Shadow President, and the Leader-in-Waiting. Every time Bush makes a move she should issue a statesmanlike statement about how she would have handled it. Most of all, they should recognize that she's a plain-spoken and direct person, not a great rhetorician like Bill. They should emphasize that without being obvious about it.
Please, no more "let's have a conversation" moments. That's the political equivalent of "Do the Clam." Sen. Clinton still has a good chance of becoming the Democratic nominee, and she deserves better. More importantly, so does the Democratic Party - and the country.
*UPDATE: Newly-released poll numbers show an improvement for Sen. Clinton: 50% favorable vs. 47% unfavorable, probably as a result of her strong debate performance. Her positive ratings are roughly equivalent to her competitors' now, but her negatives remain much higher than theirs. And the trend line - perhaps the most important indicator - remains sharply down overall from February's 58% favorable rating. My conclusion? The candidate is better than her advisors or her strategy. When voters see her directly, as in the debate, they like her more than they do when she's carrying out the machinations recommended by her staff. The "triangulation" approach is holding her back.