A Polarizing Figure in a Polarized Age

Less than six months before the two-year presidential election cycle begins, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s political problems loom larger than ever.

The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination is coasting toward her assured re-election in New York without serious Republican opposition, leaving her time to campaign around the country for dozens of Democratic candidates, while collecting IOUs for her expected presidential bid.

But last week’s Gallup Poll, closely read by her many presidential rivals, turned the spotlight on the biggest political obstacle to her future ambitions, raising new questions about whether Democrats would be better advised to pick someone far less polarizing in 2008.

The poll showed in far greater detail than ever before that Americans hold fiercely opposing views about her left-leaning political positions, as well as her character and personality traits — with men significantly more likely to have a negative opinion about her than women.

The most frequent views expressed by poll respondents ranged from positive perceptions such as intelligent, forthright, and outspoken to negative opinions like aggressive, overbearing, untrustworthy and wishy-washy.

"All in all, the public is just about as likely … to come up with positive views of Clinton as they are to come up with negative views. Thirty-six percent of Americans could not name anything they admire about Clinton, while 39 % could not name anything they don’t like about her," Gallup reported in a survey conducted June 26-29.

Overall, the public perception of Clinton’s image was 51 % favorable and 44 % unfavorable. But the intensity of the reactions among those who dislike her, which can be a powerful motivating factor in voter turnout, revealed a major political weakness that could become a strategic issue in her party’s nominating battle to come.

Among those expressing negative opinions about Clinton, 11 % cited her "liberal political views," while 11 % said she "wavers too much on issues to her advantage."

"These are followed by expression of a basic lack of trust in her (8 %), residues of past Clinton scandals (7 %) and the view that she is overbearing and aggressive (7 %)," Gallup said.

Especially troubling for her: "Men are significantly more likely … to verbalize negative opinions of Clinton than are women. Seventy percent of men can mention something they don’t like about Clinton, compared to 55 % of women," Gallup found.

Other independent pollsters say they, too, have found that Clinton triggers unusually strong responses from voters who either like her very much or dislike her intensely, with little middle ground.

"She is a polarizing figure in a polarized age. She has some convincing to do. Very few people are lukewarm toward her. There is a high intensity on both sides," pollster John Zogby told me.

Gallup’s findings about how the general public views Clinton comes at a time when at least eight Democrats, with more to come, have begun to promote their presidential credentials — signaling that many Democrats do not think she has a lock on the nomination.

Last month, a Cook/RT Strategies poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents showed Clinton leading her rivals with 37 %, followed by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry with 20 % and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 12 %.

But the presumed Clinton juggernaut was rocked this month by a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, showing Edwards leading Clinton by 30 % to 26 % in the state that will hold the first party nominating caucus of the 2008 campaign. The party’s 2004 vice-presidential nominee spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate and remains one of his party’s most popular contenders.

What emerges from all of this? Clinton may be far more vulnerable in the upcoming presidential-nominating cycle than is generally perceived right now. Some Democrats privately worry she still carries so much baggage from her husband’s presidency she would needlessly ignite all the old divisions and hatreds of the 1990s that would be a turnoff to swing voters.

Beyond her star power as the former First Lady and the senator from New York, she has led no great legislative offensives, proposed no major, original legislative reforms of her own and seems bereft of any new ideas.

"And she has another problem," Zogby said. "Right now, she has carved a position for herself in the center [on defense and other national-security issues], and she’s alienating large swaths of voters on the left who oppose the war in Iraq."

Bill Clinton’s ascendancy to the presidency was the result of a brilliant balancing act that brought his party’s centrists and liberals together behind a candidacy that appealed to both at the same time. Achieving that feat a second time is Hillary’s daunting challenge.