And the News Gets Worse for Clinton

by Stuart Rothenberg September 17, 2015 · 10:08 AM EDT

Compared to the Republican race for president, the Democratic contest looks almost normal.

Yes, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers have plummeted so far and so fast that she trails an avowed socialist in Iowa and New Hampshire polls, and she looks so damaged that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been encouraged to consider whether he should run for his party’s nomination.

But Clinton remains the best funded, most organized candidate in her party, even as Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders has emerged as the alternative. The others in the field — former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb — have made little or no impression with voters, contributors or the national media.

Still, that fact shouldn’t make supporters of the former secretary of State over-confident considering her past few months, which have been nothing short of disastrous.

The email controversy has damaged her reputation and standing, and new reports that deleted personal emails may be recoverable almost guarantee the controversy will continue to dog Clinton for weeks, or even months.

Her 41-point lead over Sanders in the May Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll closed to 7 points (37 percent to 30 percent) in the Aug. 23-26 survey. The Aug. 26 to Sept. 2 NBC News/Marist poll documented the same trend, with Clinton’s 29-point lead in July falling to an 11-point deficit in the recent survey. And the new CBS News/YouGov poll in Iowa showed Sanders leading by double digits.

Clinton’s standing is even worse in New Hampshire, where she now trails Sanders by 22 points in the recent CBS News/YouGov survey.

The former secretary of State’s drop in the polls has occurred even though she has been airing television ads since early August in the first two states with contests.

The ineffectiveness of the TV ads, which I can only assume were intended to boost her numbers, demonstrate what can happen when the earned media is almost completely against the candidate and raises fundamental questions about the candidate’s character, judgment and integrity.

Paid advertising certainly can be effective, especially in introducing a candidate to voters or raising questions about opponents. But for someone like Clinton, who has been in the public eye for decades and is almost universally known, earned media is more powerful, especially when it is unrelentingly negative and undermines her reputation and credibility.

Regardless of whether you think the coverage of Clinton has been fair, she certainly is partly responsible for the bad press she has received and the length of time the controversy about her email has been allowed to fester.

Given the first rule of bad news in politics — get all of the bad stuff and the embarrassing facts out right away, apologize and move on — I can only wonder how and why the Clinton campaign allowed the problem to fester so long, clearly damaging her reputation and standing in the polls. Was the campaign team aware of all of the facts? Did Clinton herself ignore advice to apologize?

Fortunately for Clinton, the Democratic Party is not quite yet where the GOP is in terms of anger at the establishment, and she still has plenty of assets, though you wouldn’t know it by examining the recent media coverage.

Anti-establishment fervor has been building for years within the Republican Party, while progressives in the Democratic Party have only recently been able to flex their muscle. That isn’t surprising, of course, since Barack Obama has been in the White House for almost seven years, and he and his administration (as well as the federal courts) have handed victories to Democratic liberals on issues from health care and same-sex marriage to the Iran nuclear deal, gays in the military and immigration.

Progressives may complain their victories haven’t gone far enough or come fast enough — and they still have complaints about economic inequality and trade agreements — but they haven’t suffered the defeats that conservatives have over the past seven years.

Of course, Sanders’ progressive positioning is only part of his appeal. As one veteran Democratic consultant told me, “Bernie’s appeal is in part progressive, but in part also about authenticity.” And that is where the email controversy, Clinton’s personal style and some of her campaign’s decisions have combined to damage the favorite.

Clinton’s favorable ratings have fallen from 88 percent in the June Iowa poll to 77 percent in August, and that number is even 10 points lower in the NBC News/Marist survey. Again, given the coverage she has received, the drop is understandable.

Still, Clinton is widely liked by Democrats, particularly in the minority community, and she still has many advantages over Sanders, including her gender, her fundraising and organization, and the potentially historic nature of her nomination and possible election.

“Clinton is still most likely our nominee. Whether she is the nominee easy or hard is the question. Right now, it looks like it is going to be hard,” one Democratic strategist told me recently.

It is Clinton’s general election prospects that have taken a bigger hit, assuming she faces a mainstream Republican opponent who can limit the party’s losses among Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

Of course, she would still have a number of advantages in the general election including the higher turnout of a presidential year, the changing face of the American electorate, the narrow but clear advantage any Democrat starts out with in the Electoral College, and the chaos that currently reigns supreme in the Republican Party.

The past few months have been terrible for Clinton. Everyone knows that, even her supporters. And things could get worse before they get better. But even with her problems, she remains the favorite for her party’s nomination and a formidable contender for November of 2016.