I'm guessing that you may have heard that Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for the White House Sunday in this video. Before that even happened, you may also have heard that lots of people don't like Hillary Clinton. In the coming months, each new poll showing substantial disapproval, dislike, or disquiet with the prospect of a Clinton presidency is going to be greeted with articles analyzing the public's hesitancy about the former secretary of state, complete with quotes from Republicans gleefully arguing that everyone hates her and their candidate will inevitably win the election. And while there's some truth to the basic idea that Clinton is "polarizing," the fact is that she's no more distrusted than anyone else in politics.
To be clear, I'm not here to argue that she is destined to win. She might, but she might not. It depends on many things. But there are a lot of people who will say that Clinton has unique problems with the electorate, and that's the part that's false.
If you want to understand the state of American politics, take a look at this page, where HuffPost Pollster collects favorability ratings on various American political figures. I'll reproduce it here in miniature, which will be enough to see the point I'm making:
The disapproval lines are in red, and approval is in black. Clinton is second from the right (in the second row, if you're looking at the page on HuffPost); her aggregated approval is 48 percent, two points higher than her disapproval. She has declined about 10 points from where she was a couple of years ago, which isn't surprising as she moved toward a candidacy (her approval has always closely tracked her distance from partisan politics). But those two points make her the only major figure whose disapproval is lower than her approval. Some people are closer to net approval than others—for instance, Marco Rubio comes in at 30-31, while Nancy Pelosi is at 31-50—but as a general matter, the American electorate dislikes everyone in politics. Every Republican presidential candidate is under water in their approval, as are both parties and all the congressional leaders. As far as the public as a whole is concerned, there are no good guys. Or rather, the only good guys are on your side.
That isn't to say that individuals don't matter. Not only does every presidential candidate bring his or her own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, those can change over the course of the long campaign. But the fundamental fact is that Republican voters are going to hate whoever the Democratic nominee is, and vice versa. If there's a Republican candidate you don't already despise, it's only because you haven't gotten to know him yet.
I say that not because they're all despicable, but because that's how the process works. By the time we get to next November, if you're a liberal you will have learned all kinds of objectionable things about that GOP nominee, many of which you aren't yet aware of. You'll also hear them make arguments and advocate policies that you emphatically reject, on matters foreign and domestic. And you'll hear the people you like and trust—politicians, writers, commentators, pundits—tell you all the reasons why this person is a dire threat to the things you hold dear. The vaguely ill feeling you have toward them today will become disgust and fear of the highest urgency.
So by the time we get to the end of this campaign, the Republican nominee will be every bit as polarizing a figure as Clinton, even if I suspect he won't be regularly described that way. And I can promise you that whichever nominee wins, he or she will be one of the three most polarizing presidents in the history of polling, joining Barack Obama and George W. Bush. When Gallup gathered together the most polarizing years for presidential approval (defined as the difference between Republicans' approval of the president and Democrats' approval of him), the top ten all occurred during the last two presidencies. Tied for first were 2012, when Obama's approval was 86 percent among Democrats and 10 percent among Republicans, and 2004, when Bush's approval was 15 percent among Democrats and 91 percent among Republicans. In their last poll, Obama's approval was 84 percent among Democrats and 8 percent among Republicans.
That's what Hillary Clinton's profile will look like, too, not because there's something uniquely polarizing about her, but because people in both parties already know her, so the Democrats like her and the Republicans hate her. In a recent Washington Post poll, 84 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable impression of her; 86 percent of Republicans said their impression was unfavorable.
If Clinton ends up winning, Republicans will be shocked that such a thing could have happened. They still can't quite believe the voters elected Barack Obama twice, and if anything, their loathing of Clinton runs even deeper. But barring some spectacular circumstance or truly ghastly scandal, the 2016 election will be a close one, and somewhere right around half the electorate—neither much more nor much less—will vote for Hillary Clinton. No matter how many people say today that they don't like her.