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The paradox of Clinton: winning, but deeply unpopular

Updated November 01, 2016
CLEVELAND: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs as she orders lunch at a cafe on Monday.—AP
CLEVELAND: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laughs as she orders lunch at a cafe on Monday.—AP

NEW YORK: Next Tuesday, on Nov 8, America will elect as its next president one of the two most unpopular candidates in modern history. While the candidacy of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, is manifestly controversial, the wellspring of hostility towards Hillary Clinton is not as easily explained.

Jonathan Chait, a widely respected liberal commentator at New York magazine, articulated the alarm of many of his colleagues thus in September: “The harrowing reality is that the only thing standing between handing control of the Executive branch to a wildly ignorant, racist demagogue with a fondness for the authoritarian world is the second-most-unpopular presidential nominee in the history of modern polling.”

Ms Clinton has not always been so unpopular with the electorate. She was viewed favourably by a majority of Americans during her tenure as Secretary of State and before that twice handily won a Senate seat from New York. Moreover, her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama are viewed favourably by a majority of Americans — Democratic presidents in whose mould Ms Clinton has explicitly tried to cast herself.

“I’m surprised and terrified she can’t beat him by 12 points,” Isaac Chotiner, a writer at Slate, told Dawn, referring to Ms Clinton’s relatively narrow lead in national polling. “Ideologically, she’s closer to the average voter. I don’t get it.”

Ms Clinton’s long-standing troubles with the American voter appear to have deepened during a bruising Democratic primary battle with Bernie Sanders, a socialist Senator from Vermont. Early in that battle, Ms Clinton’s net favourability ratings turned negative and since then she has been on a path towards a growing majority of Americans disapproving of her.

Of the insurgent challenge by Mr Sanders, Mr Chait of the New York magazine has written: “When [Mr Sanders] used terms like ‘corrupt’ and ‘rigged’ and ‘bought and paid for’, [voters] understood these in a much sharper way. Younger voters, who did not form clear views of Clinton in the 1990s, were introduced to her as a literally criminal figure.”

Cenk Uyghur, co-founder of The Young Turks and a vocal supporter of Mr Sanders, told Dawn: “Hillary Clinton is not any worse than any other politician who takes millions — in her case, billions — and does whatever her donors want, but she has done it on an unprecedented scale. So, Americans have a sneaking suspicion that she represents all of those donors instead of them. That is why she is currently tied with a monster.”

Others, such as Mr Chotiner and Kim Ghattas, author of a sympathetic biography of Ms Clinton, ‘The Secretary’, have publicly argued that Ms Clinton suffers from a likeability problem. “She comes across as inauthentic, clumsy. It’s a personality and character thing. That and the woman factor,” Mr Chotiner said.

Ms Ghattas has written: “Democratic supporters quietly confide they worry that no matter how good Mrs Clinton’s policies are, her elusive likeability will undermine her message. The gap between her warmth and ability to connect with people in small settings and the coolness she can project while on a larger stage remains a mystery to her friends.”

Compounding Ms Clinton’s flaws as a candidate in the eyes of the voter is the unremitting email scandal stemming from Ms Clinton’s decision to use a private email server during her stint as Secretary of State. The bombshell announcement by FBI Director James Comey on Friday that his agency is reopening its investigation into Ms Clinton’s use of the private server has rocked the campaign.

In an unpredictable and at times sordid election season, the latest email irruption has pulled together many of the factors that have made a majority of voters uncomfortable about supporting Ms Clinton. “The way the email thing became a scandal is astonishing, but from the very beginning, it was mishandled by them,” Mr Chotiner said, referring to the Clinton campaign’s perceived evasiveness on the matter.

“The Clintons have danced on many ethical lines,” he added, summing up a campaign that has been a grim, cheerless affair rather than a triumphant march towards becoming the first female president of the United States.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2016