As she has been apt to do since the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton made headlines this week with a tweet trolling President Trump for his alleged ties to Russia. It was snarky, comical, and many would say a valid point. Yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of her more recent distinctions… Hillary is unusually unpopular for a defeated presidential candidate.
John McCain took a good ‘ole fashion thumping in his contest against Barack Obama in 2008. Yet CNN and Gallup polls conducted just days after the election found him to be, certainly by today’s standards, a wildly popular national figure. You would have never guessed he’d just lost a presidential election by more than seven points, and ceded 365 electoral college votes to the Democrats.
On the opposite end of the spectrum lies Hillary Clinton. After holding Donald Trump to the lowest share of the popular vote for a winning president in history without a significant third party presence, and defeating him by a share of 48.0 – 45.9% and three million votes, her public image post-presidential loss is the poorest of any presidential loser in the modern polling era. Not only that, but she appears to have beaten her own personal low. The Gallup organization provides the two most recent data points on Clinton’s public image, and both find her at an *all-time* low (36/60% and 36/61% favorable/unfavorable, respectively). It sounds more significant when considering that Gallup has polled this question for Hillary Clinton 162 times since 1992!
I chose to write on this topic because it seemed to me that presidential losers typically get a bump in their public image after losing an election. Past polling bears that out for the most part, though with some exceptions – Hillary being one of them. This article will take a look back at presidential losers and how their public images have (or have not) changed over time.
In the roughly two years that have transpired since the 2016 election, Hillary has averaged a 39/56% favorable/unfavorable rating across twenty public surveys, and all twenty found her net favorable rating to be double-digits under water. That represents a decline from her pre-election RCP average of 42/54%. Even Walter Mondale, who suffered a devastating, 49-state loss to Ronald Reagan managed a 41/47% favorability rating in the two years following the 1984 presidential election (although the data is somewhat limited). In fact, a look back at the public image of failed presidential candidates in the two years following their defeat finds Hillary Clinton with the worst net rating of any candidate dating back to at least Gerald Ford. Consider the table below, which compares losing presidential candidate’s pre and post election favorability ratings.
As one might expect, presidential losers aren’t always popular in the weeks leading up to their defeat, and some remain so even years later. But Hillary stands out for the magnitude of her unpopularity. Her -17 average net favorability rating is nearly three times worse than the second most unpopular post-loss candidate, Walter Mondale. It is 24 points lower than the average net favorability score (+7) for presidential losers dating back to Gerald Ford. And she is one of only three of the last eleven failed presidential candidates to see her public image decline after losing.
But why does Hillary Clinton stand out among the rest of the presidential losers in terms of her low public image? Is it as simple as the fact that she’s a polarizing figure?
Perhaps. But Trump’s inability to allow his vanquished foe to fade into the background is unique among presidential winners, and has certainly contributed to the lack of a sympathy boost experienced by the likes of John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Think about it: how often did Barack Obama launch broadside attacks against Mitt Romney following the 2012 presidential election, much less even mention his name? Did George W. Bush ever use the “flip-flopper” line against John Kerry again after November 2, 2004? Did Bill Clinton continue to portray Bush 41 as out of touch after tossing him out of office? By contrast, the infamous “lock her up” refrain from the 2016 election seems as popular at Trump rallies today as it ever was. Like it or not, a sitting president is as well positioned as anyone to sway public opinion towards individuals, especially if they keep up a steady barrage of public attacks. And the president’s supporters hold an ongoing disdain for his old opponent in a way I have yet to see in my lifetime. To be fair, Hillary Clinton has been no shrinking violet in the wake of her loss, responding to the president’s attacks at times, and launching her own broadsides at others. Either way, it’s safe to say that Hillary Clinton has not been a conventional presidential loser, and that shows in her unconventionally poor public image.
On the plus side for Hillary, her image still has time to improve, at least in comparison to the last two years. Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter all saw measurable increases in their public images in polling conducted more than two years after their presidential loss (on the other hand, Mitt Romney saw his worsen). But we’re now one year away from the start of the 2020 presidential primaries. At this point in the 2016 cycle, Hillary Clinton sported a 52/42% favorable/unfavorable rating in the Real Clear Politics average. If she were to launch another campaign tomorrow, she’d be starting a net 27 points weaker than she did four years ago. Think of these numbers the next time you hear speculation about another Hillary presidential bid in 2020. She hasn’t flatly ruled it out. Far from it:
Mrs. Clinton said she wouldn’t consider a possible run in 2020 until after the midterm elections next week.
“I’m not even going to even think about it until we get through this Nov. 6 election,” she said. “But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we have a Democrat in the White House come January of 2021.”
Yet as silly as it sounds, her supporters may have a point:
“Chalking the  loss up to her being a failed candidate is an oversimplification,” Reines said. “She is smarter than most, tougher than most, she could raise money easier than most, and it was an absolute fight to the death.”