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Parsing the Polls on Bill and Hillary Clinton

What would we do without the Clintons? No two figures have so captivated the public's interest over the past decade than the former president and first lady, a.k.a. the junior senator from New York.

Bill and Hillary Clinton
The former first couple have had their ups and downs in the public's eyes. (2003 file photo by AP)

This week once again showed how the former first couple continues to generate plenty of media attention. Bill Clinton made national headlines for his campaign swing through Connecticut on behalf of embattled Sen. Joe Lieberman. On the same day a few thousand miles away, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was delivering a speech at the Democratic Leadership Council's "National Conversation" gathering in Denver, where she presented an economic plan for her party to tout in the midterm elections and beyond.

As historians begin to examine the former president's legacy, and as political reporters (including The Fix) begin to analyze Sen. Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign-in-waiting, it seems like a good time to take a look at how the couple has fared in public opinion polling over the 14 years they have spent in the public eye. Thanks to our good friends at Gallup and the crack polling unit at The Washington Post, we have plenty of data at our disposal.

So without further ado, let's parse the polls! (With one caveat: It's important to remember that while it's fun to study personal favorability ratings, most pollsters dismiss the predictive elements of these numbers. Quite often voters separate their personal feelings about a politician from the job they believe he or she is doing.)

Looking at the totality of polling on the personal favorability ratings of both Clintons, it's clear that the American public generally feels favorably toward them. Between Bill Clinton's election in 1992 and June 2006, Gallup asked voters their opinion of him in 123 surveys. In just 11 of those polls (9 percent) did the former president receive a net negative rating. In the 65 polls testing Hillary Clinton's favorability rating, just 7 (11 percent) had more people viewing her unfavorably than favorably.

The Washington Post polling over the same period mirrors Gallup. Of the 38 times the Post asked the personal favorability question about Bill Clinton, in just three times did he receive a higher unfavorable than favorable ranking. In the 29 polls on Hillary Clinton, she had a net negative personal favorability score only four times.

In the first Gallup poll conducted after Clinton won the White House (Nov. 10-11, 1992), 58 percent of the sample viewed him favorably while 35 percent saw him in an unfavorable light. Nearly 14 years later, the numbers are nearly identical. In a Gallup poll in the field from June 23-25, 2006, 59 percent of those tested said they view the former president favorably compared with 37 percent who view him unfavorably. The first Post poll testing Bill Clinton's favorability after the 1992 election (conducted Jan. 17, 1993) pegged his favorability rating at 68 percent, with 20 percent stating the opposite. The last Post poll put his fav/unfav rating at 59/39.

Hillary Clinton's image is a bit more tarnished than when she came onto the national stage as first lady in the early 1990s -- not surprising since she has become a politician in her own right and a favorite target for Republican rhetoric. When she first became First Lady, a Post poll found 51 percent voicing a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, while 20 percent viewed her unfavorably. The most recent Post poll (May 15, 2006) had Sen. Clinton with a 54 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable score. Gallup's first poll on Hillary Clinton -- conducted Aug. 8-10, 1993 -- pegged her fav/unfav at 57/33. In the late June 2006 Gallup survey, Clinton's favorability score had dropped to 51 percent while her unfavorable rating had jumped to 44 percent.

Although each of the Clinton's has largely been seen in a positive light by the voting public, both have gone through rough patches -- usually keyed to high-profile news events.

After going nearly five years (1994-1999) without a Gallup survey showing a net negative personal approval score, Bill Clinton went 18 months without a single positive rating, a period that began in December 1999 when Gallup showed his fav/unfav at 45/53. The slide continued through the final year of his presidency and into 2001 -- likely the result of so-called "Clinton fatigue" after eight years in office and the lingering resentment over the impeachment saga. It was exacerbated in early 2001 by the revelation that Clinton had offered pardons to former donors and associates before exiting the Oval Office. Clinton's low ebb came during this period. A poll conducted March 5-7, 2001, showed just 39 percent had a favorable opinion of the former president, while 59 percent had an unfavorable view.

Those numbers had begun to bounce back even before Clinton's heart bypass surgery in September 2004 and his subsequent work with former president George H.W. Bush to raise money for victims of the South Asia tsunami in late 2004 and 2005. An Oct. 21-23, 2005, Gallup poll showed a healthy 60/38 percent fav/unfav rating for Clinton.

Similarly, Hillary Rodham Clinton's personal-approval ratings experienced one major trough from January through August 1996. At the same time that her husband's reelection was looking more and more assured, the first lady's personal image took a blow, largely due to the investigation into her involvement with a failed savings and loan company -- better known as the Whitewater scandal.

In five consecutive Gallup polls from January through August 1996, Hillary Clinton had net negative approval scores ranging from one to eight points. She bounced back by the end of the year -- a survey done at the end of October put her at 49 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable. The Post had three straight negative ratings for Clinton in polls conducted from Jan. 19, 1996, to June 30, 1996.

While much was written at the time about Hillary Clinton as one of the least popular -- or most divisive -- first ladies in history, in the years since leaving the White House she has made the transition from (semi) private life to elected office without any real dent in her personal favorability ratings. Since taking office in the Senate in 2001, just two Gallup polls have given Sen. Clinton a net negative score. Her favorability peaked in July 2004 when 56 percent viewed her favorably while 38 percent saw her in an unfavorable light. In the four Gallup polls conducted in 2005, Clinton's favorability rating fluctuated between 53 percent and 55 percent while her unfavorable score bounced between 39 percent and 43 percent.

Since everything in life goes back to what we learned in high school, we also did a quick check of which Clinton is more popular, according to Gallup polls since 2000. In the 13 surveys in which the personal favorability of both was tested, Hillary Clinton had the healthier numbers in 10. One positive note for Bill Clinton -- he was more popular in the last two polls conducted by Gallup.

One other interesting note when comparing the Clintons side-by-side: The biggest contrast between their numbers in the Post poll came in August 1998. In an Aug. 19 survey Bill Clinton had a 39/57 fav/unfav rating while Hillary Clinton had an astronomical 64/32. Why? Two days earlier Bill Clinton admitted on national television that he had had an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

What these numbers tell us about Bill's past and Hillary's future is that both are survivors in their own way; each has seen his or her own image rise and fall -- only to rise again. The amount of time the Clintons have spent in the political limelight has clearly hardened support for and opposition to them, meaning that it will be difficult for anyone to move their numbers in any meaningful way.

As a result, Hillary Clinton's potential Democratic primary opponents face a steep challenge in trying to remake public opinion about her, but so too do allies of the New York senator who are hoping they can make her more appealing to moderate and independent voters so that she can win a general election come 2008.

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 26, 2006; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Parsing the Polls  
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