Americans love horse races, especially the political kind. News organizations know this, so they make sure to create a horse race or two every four years—even when (and perhaps especially when) a race promises to be a dull ride and a foregone conclusion.
I don’t mind this much. Politics have been a form of entertainment in the United States since the very beginning. This is better than being, as it is in many countries, a blood sport.
But sometimes the imperative to turn a political election into a horse race leads to some pretty sloppy thinking—such as this recent piece arguing that Bernie Sanders is the only Democrat who can beat Donald Trump, which is based on this piece presenting the polling results of just such a theoretical matchup.
I’m not going to get into the weeds and talk about polling methodologies or sampling errors. Let’s assume that the numbers reflected here really do paint an accurate picture of the electorate in late-February of 2016. The hypothetical fall matchups are still extremely problematic because they compare two candidates (Trump and Sanders) who are just now entering the intense glare of a presidential campaign with another candidate (Clinton) who has been in the spotlight nonstop for more than 25 years.
A major-party candidate for the presidency must endure more scrutiny than any other human being on earth. Some, of course, make it through the gauntlet, but none of them end up with the same favorability ratings that they started with.
Hillary Clinton can go through the gauntlet unfazed because she has been in the hottest glare of the media spotlight since 1992.Michael Austin
This will happen to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders if they secure their party’s nomination. Trump has had 30 years or so of personal and financial excesses that have stayed (albeit slightly) beneath the surface for most of the campaign—largely because most people did not think that he had a chance at the nomination.
Sanders, on the other hand, has (probably) lived a life of personal and financial rectitude. But he has been a progressive political activist for a long time—which means that he has taken positions and worked with companions that many voters will find distasteful, if not downright shocking when condensed into a 30-second attack spot.
And I am not picking on Trump and Sanders. Every single person in the race today would face, upon nomination, an almost unimaginably intense focus on everything they have ever said, everyone they have ever known, and anything they have ever done. Nobody can go through such an ordeal with their approval rating intact. I couldn’t, and neither could you.
Nobody but Hillary Clinton. She can go through the gauntlet unfazed because she has been in the hottest glare of the media spotlight since 1992. As the wife of a president whose marital troubles were big news, as a senator from New York, and as the Secretary of State, she has never left the public eye.
And as the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee for the last eight years, she has endured thousands of hours of congressional hearings with the sole objective of inflicting political damage on her. There is nothing left to come out.
So, when pundits attempt to predict the results of a Fall election between Hillary and other candidates, they are comparing the favorable ratings of a candidate that has been thoroughly vetted by the media and the opposing party with candidates who are just now beginning a vetting process from which they cannot escape unscathed.
Hillary’s negatives are not going to increase, and her positives are going to stay at least where they are. All of the shoes have dropped, and all of the skeletons have been thrown from the closet. The same cannot be said of anybody else running for the presidency today.