In the fall of 2007 during her first run for president, Hillary Clinton was often asked why her name was so polarizing in politics. She had a good answer: Unlike the other Democrats competing with her for the nod, she had a record of withstanding Republican attacks that went back for decades. It had taken its toll on her, of course, but the fact that she was still standing was a testament to her electability.
Today, her campaign is barely a week old, and she’s already endured years of attacks since she emerged as the overwhelming favorite for the nomination in 2016. But she’s not just standing—she’s thriving. Every indicator, from polling to economic fundamentals to demographical analysis, points to her being in the driver’s seat for 2016.
A batch of polling from CNN and Opinion Research point to a landslide if the election were held today, with Clinton’s strongest potential opponent, Marco Rubio, trailing her by 14 points at 55-41. Her edges against the rest of the GOP field are even more lopsided, with Clinton even mustering a 24-point edge over Senator Ted Cruz.
Other polling shows a much more modest advantage for Clinton. Fox News projects much tighter margins, with Clinton only besting her nearest rival, Rand Paul, by 3 points. Quinnipiac also shows some close numbers, with Marco Rubio even coming within 2 points of Clinton.
Clinton is also doing well in battleground states. The 12-point lead that the vaunted Marquette Law School poll found for her over Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin has to make her campaign feel good right now. Walker is the only GOP candidate not saddled by enormous political baggage and a moribund state economy (New Jersey’s Chris Christie) who has shown he can win repeatedly in a blue state.
What makes these numbers (near-universal, if sometimes modest, leads) so promising for Clinton is that they’re coming up at a time when she’s facing more scrutiny than she has in years. Of course, the media glare and Republican grilling will get worse for her—much worse—as the election season goes on. But now that she’s an announced candidate, she’s shed a lot of the goodwill that voters, including some Republicans, granted her when she spent four years as an almost non-partisan figure at the State Department. She’s been hounded about her email server. And within the last few days (too late to be reflected in these polls) she’s faced questions about donations and speaking fees at the Clinton Foundation.
But her numbers are still resilient, even as every Republican in the field targets her.
“Hillary Clinton eats scandals for breakfast,” Bill Maher gloated last week. He was noting that her numbers are holding steady even as the Republican attack machine revs up. And while I wouldn’t be so sanguine about the potential dangers these stories pose to the Clinton campaign, there’s definitely something to his observation. A lot of pundits are speculating about something called Clinton fatigue, but they’ve only identified two-thirds of the phenomenon. The real issue is fatigue over Clinton pseudo-scandals.
Ever since the early 1990s, when congressional Republicans and talk radio began hounding the Clintons over a real estate deal they made in Arkansas (from which they lost money), Clinton pseudo-scandals have been almost a constant in U.S. politics. Republican senator and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole called for an investigation of Clinton over his old, unprofitable real estate deal on the same day the President was mourning the loss of his mother. GOP congressman Dan Burton, in a deranged effort to prove that the death of one of Clinton’s aides couldn’t possibly have been a suicide, summoned a handful of reporters to his ranch, and in his quest for truth proceeded to shoot a watermelon. And the special prosecutor Ken Starr, appointed by the conservative Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist to investigate Clinton’s alleged scandals, had a curious habit of frequently announcing that his investigation was reaching “a critical stage” just as elections were looming. The malevolent prosecutor enjoyed watching the Clintons squirm, and even ordered that blood be drawn from the President for DNA testing when a cotton swab to the cheek could have obtained the same evidence. But after years of hunting the President of the United States, that vial of blood was all he got.
Meanwhile, the economy was booming, with 22 million jobs created in the Clinton years while the stock market tripled in value. But no matter how good things got—no matter how far the poverty rate plunged, no matter how seriously Clinton’s budgets whittled away at the deficit, and no matter how eye-popping private sector earnings became—the rage against the Clintons never seemed to diminish. If anything, it got worse, culminating with an impeachment at a time when Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were surging to the 70 percent mark. In the 1998 midterm elections that were dominated by impeachment promises, Republicans lost seats.
Breathless Republican demands for investigations into the Clintons’ nefarious dealings has become something like an unofficial law of American politics. Their criticisms and accusations barely register because they’re so commonplace, expected, and routine.
Now they’re beginning their barrage again. Maybe they’ll find something this time, nestled in one of the Clinton Foundation’s thousands of donations and dealings, a transaction gone wrong that can really haunt the former Secretary of State. But I wouldn’t put money on it. Republicans will throw everything at her—they always do—but unless it really is a bombshell, it just won’t register with the voters Clinton can’t afford to lose in November. Sure, it’ll send millions of people in some circles into a tizzy—assuming those people can take a break from bleating about Benghazi. But they aren’t the audience Clinton needs to win over, and they’ve never been.
Pundits are talking about Clinton fatigue—but none other than Fox News is out with evidence that’s not an issue. By a 52-39 margin, voters they polled believe that being associated with the Clinton dynasty is a positive. But another dynasty isn’t faring so well: Voters say by a 58-34 margin that the Bush name hurts Jeb Bush.
People remember the Clinton boom, and even more people remember the financial crisis that began under George W. Bush that America’s still recovering from. For a national psyche that first and foremost wants the slow recovery to really accelerate, the Clinton brand seems pretty appealing.
No, Clinton fatigue isn’t a real thing—it’s the product of over-thinking and speculation by analysts. It’s crystallized into conventional wisdom, but just doesn’t factor in regular Americans’ perceptions. Unless of course, Fox News is massaging poll numbers on behalf of Hillary, in which case these Clinton cover-ups sure go deeper than anyone thought!
What Americans are tired of by 2016 won’t be Hillary Clinton, but the conspiracy theories and crackpot rumors that the far right throws at her. Expect more calls to investigate Benghazi, even after the Republican-led House committee failed to find evidence of wrongdoing in their sixth and most recent investigation. They’ll throw everything they can at her, especially if the economy continues to improve.
The bad news is, the outrage-peddlers are a fixture in American politics, and they’ll be out in full force until November, and sadly after. The very good news is, they’re no better at taking Clinton down than they were twenty years ago.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.