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The polarizing express

Is it Hillary Clinton who's too divisive, or is it the political process?

December 16, 2007|Ezra Klein | Ezra Klein is a staff writer at the American Prospect. His blog can be found at EzraKlein.com.

The online retailer Cafe Press, which allows users to sell their own products over the Internet, currently stocks 440,000 unique items relating to Hillary Clinton. Feeling the holiday spirit? You can purchase the "Hillary Is a Devil" Christmas ornament. If you're more sartorially oriented, grab the "No Way in Hellary" shirt, tastefully emblazoned with a red sketch of Clinton flicking out her forked tongue. Or go in the opposite direction. An adjacent shirt on the page declares you a member of "Team Hillary," complete with a membership logo etched in a calming, light-blue script. Polarization, it turns out, is good for business.

But is it good for Clinton? For Democrats, this is an immensely meaningful question. If the former first lady really is more polarizing than other candidates, if her negatives really are higher than theirs will ever be, if those voters who oppose her -- especially among independents and moderate Republicans -- truly oppose her fiercely and determinedly and immutably, then, well, that's not a set of qualities you want in a nominee.

On the other hand, that may not be the case. After all, she starts with a high base of support (more registered voters say they will "definitely" support her in a general election than any other candidate, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll from November), and let's face it, there's really nothing left to throw at her. As her pollster, Mark Penn, said, "All her negatives are out." She's survived the process, is broadly known by voters and still wins most polled matchups against potential Republican challengers. So maybe she's the safest bet.

It's a tricky question. To determine whether she can really win the general election in November, you first have to figure out if she truly is more polarizing than her competitors. And, at least for the moment, the numbers suggest that she is. If you average the last five USA Today/Gallup polls, she has a 50.4% favorable rating and a 46.4% unfavorable rating. That's a pretty even division. By contrast, Barack Obama has a 53.8% favorable rating and a 30.2% unfavorable number. Even the pugnacious Rudy Giuliani, who strikes me as about as likable as car trouble, exhibits negatives about 10% lower than Clinton's.

Still, it's a bit misleading to say "she" is more polarizing. Polarization isn't a character trait; it's the outcome of a process. And that process is American politics. Clinton was a central player in most of the high-profile political controversies between 1992 and 2000. Remember them all? The bruising healthcare reform fight of 1993 and 1994, the endless Whitewater scandal, the weird resuscitation of the '60s-era culture wars, the Lewinsky mess and all the rest. Fifteen years in the hothouse of national politics will leave you "polarizing" as surely as 15 minutes in a tanning bed will leave you bronzed.

To dramatize the point, Gallup recently released a set of numbers providing historical context to Clinton's numbers. Before his successful 2004 reelection campaign, George W. Bush was viewed favorably by 52% of the populace and unfavorably by 47%. That means he was even more unpopular than Hillary Clinton is today -- yet he won. Worse yet, at the end of his 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton was rated unfavorably by 49% of voters (thanks, in part, to Gennifer Flowers and allegations of draft dodging), and during his 1996 reelection campaign, 44% of voters said they had an unfavorable impression of him. Yet not only did he win both elections, he's one of the most popular political figures in the country.

Those numbers tell a couple of different stories. The first is that it's probably a mistake to compare Hillary Clinton with the other presidential hopefuls. Her many years as one of the most recognizable players in national politics leave her more comparable to a president running for reelection than a newcomer scrapping for a shot at the crown. As pollster Scott Rasmussen tells me, all the other candidates are going to see their negatives go up during the course of the campaign -- and if one of them ultimately wins the race, their negatives will go up even further. "The next president will get to where she is no matter who we elect," he said. It's not that the others are necessarily less polarizing than Clinton. It's that they're not as polarizing yet.

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