Five years ago, Hillary Clinton’s “electability” as a presidential candidate was debatable. Today, it is uncontested. Democratic partisans think she will paint the electoral map blue in 2016. Recent polls show Clinton leading Rick Perry in Texas, Chris Christie in New Jersey, both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush in Florida, and tied with Rand Paul in Kentucky. Once you factor in her favorability rating in the 60s, it’s easy to start thinking of Clinton as a Democratic Eisenhower—a popular, senior statesperson, who could maximize the Democratic coalition and perform much better than the economic fundamentals suggest. But Clinton, though a very formidable candidate, is not preordained to win in an Eisehower-esque landslide: A different read of the polls reveals a candidate who is not as invincible as her lead suggests.
The main issue is that Clinton is unlikely to maintain her extraordinary popularity through 2016. Her popularity was boosted by her position as Secretary of State, where she remained above domestic political disputes for four years. Perhaps for that reason, most of Clinton’s predecessors, like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, have been broadly popular, as well. As she re-enters the fray and Republicans redirect their attacks away from the president and toward the ’16 Democratic frontrunner, her sky-high favorability rating will probably drop, as it has in the past. For instance, her ratings started out high as First Lady, but dropped when she pursued health care reform. The Monica Lewinsky scandal restored her popularity, but her pursuit of the Senate and Presidency brought her numbers back to earth. Her ratings surged once again after withdrawing from the 2008 presidential primaries.
An Eisenhower-like victory might be more likely if she was winning in a landslide right now—a margin so wide that it would still yield a clear victory, even as her popularity faded and her opponents became better known. But Clinton isn’t winning too many Romney voters. National polls show her around 51 or 52 percent against Republicans other than Christie, while state polls typically show Clinton near Obama’s share of the vote. If Clinton isn't winning Romney voters at the height of her popularity, there's cause to be skeptical about whether she will in four years. In the critical battleground states of the Midwest and West, Clinton actually appears to be doing worse than Obama. Not only do recent surveys show her below 50 percent in Colorado and Iowa, but she leads candidates like Rand Paul by just 4 points in Iowa and 3 points in Colorado—worse than Obama’s 5-plus point victories in those states.
On the other hand, Clinton is performing much better than Obama in Southern states with a large number of traditionally Democratic white voters who supported Romney, like Kentucky and even Florida. But Clinton’s strength in these areas might be especially likely to fade, or at least especially unlikely to pay off. Certainly, Clinton will perform better than Obama in those areas, but she’ll need to outperform Obama by more than 20 points to win Kentucky, West Virginia, or Arkansas. Conversely, Clinton’s area of relative weakness—the northwestern quadrant of the country—includes many states that tilted narrowly toward Democrats in the Obama years.
None of this means that Clinton isn’t a strong candidate. Her strength among traditionally Democratic white Southerners and Appalachians could be decisive in Florida and Pennsylvania—two states that combine to give Democrats the presidency in nearly every circumstance. If Democrats now have a winning demographic hand, as I believe they do, then Clinton’s ability to all but guarantee a consolidated, unified Democratic base will make her very difficult for Republicans to defeat in a competitive presidential election. A big 450 electoral vote landslide is certainly conceivable if everything breaks perfectly—her support endures, her opponents are weak, the economy continues to recover. But her current standing is too reliant on an unsustainable peak in popularity and Southern conservative supporters who aren’t likely to stick around—at least in sufficient numbers to win too many states carried by Romney—once Republicans get around to attacking her.