Clinton’s Resilient Popularity

No matter what we learn or what people say, Hillary remains one thing: One of the most popular political figures in America.

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a roundtable conversation and press conference announcing a childhood development initiative with first lady of New York City Chirlane McCray on April 1, 2015 in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Reuters

No one, not even her strongest opponents, thinks Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate for president. The question is whether she’s especially strong, or a decent option with huge risk. In the past three months there’s been substantial evidence for the second possibility: There’s the questions about her private email use as secretary of state; the questions over her paid speeches and financial disclosures; and the questions about her husband and the Clinton Foundation, which took foreign donations during her time in the administration. No, there’s no proof of influence peddling or illegal behavior. But Clinton skeptics feel vindicated, and even Clinton allies are wary.

Lost in these fears of weakness, however, is Clinton’s real and enduring strength. Take the most recent poll of the presidential race, from Quinnipiac University. Within the Democratic Party, she is the favorite: Most Democrats, 57 percent, support her candidacy, compared to 15 percent for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and just 1 percent for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. But given her long dominance over competitors—potential and otherwise—this isn’t a surprise.

What’s actual news is the degree to which Clinton still leads her potential GOP opponents. In head-to-head match-ups with eight Republicans—Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump—Clinton comes out on top. And while she doesn’t clear the 50 percent mark, except against Trump, she comes close, with 47 percent against Bush’s 37 percent, 46 percent against Walker’s 38 percent and Paul’s 42 percent, and 45 percent against Rubio’s 41 percent.

Some of this is just name recognition. Clinton is among the most known quantities in American politics. Bush notwithstanding, you can’t say the same for anyone in the Republican field, which—for early polling—means they’ll look a little weaker than they will in a year, after ample time in the spotlight.

Likewise, absent an election, these head-to-head polls have limited use. Without other information—economic performance or the president’s approval rating—the most they do is gauge standing. But even that’s significant. With this and separate polls from different pollsters, we know that Cruz and Trump are unpopular, that Rubio and Rand have real traction, and that—despite the scandals of the past few months—large pluralities of Americans would still vote for Hillary Clinton over the alternatives.

Indeed, if you look at other measures of public opinion, Clinton isn’t just the most popular person in the presidential field; she’s the most popular person in national politics, aside from Barack Obama. Yes, her “unfavorables” in the HuffPost Pollster average stand at 48 percent, higher than those for Rubio, Huckabee, Walker, Cruz, and Paul. But, at 46 percent, her “favorables” are also higher. Millions of Americans strongly dislike the former secretary of state, but just as many like her just as much.

The other way to put this is that we’re not that far removed from when Clinton was a close second-place in the Democratic nomination fight, earning millions of votes and building goodwill with large swaths of the party. Of course she’s popular. It’s almost built-in, both from Democrats who like her as a matter of loyalty, and from voters who like her as a singular figure in American life—the first woman who could be president. (To both points, 69 percent of Democratic women and 45 percent of female independents want to see a woman elected president in their lifetimes.)

Last year, Hillary Clinton was the most admired woman in the United States, an honor she also claimed in 2013. And in 2012. And in 2011. In fact, Hillary has been America’s most admired woman for 18 of the 21 years she’s been on the national stage, from her eight years as first lady through her Senate tenure, her first presidential campaign, and her time in the Obama administration.

If you want to know why Clinton doesn’t have a mainstream challenger—why Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have left the field to figures like Sanders and O’Malley—there’s your answer. It isn’t an endorsement of her candidacy to say that, for all her faults and problems, there’s no one as well-positioned for the White House as Hillary Clinton. For Democrats who want to secure the Supreme Court and defend the Obama legacy from a hostile Congress, she’s not just the only choice; she’s the best one. And barring catastrophe, the party won’t budge from it.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.