Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Face Hurdle Not Seen in Modern History

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

By NEIL KING JR. AND AARON ZITNER – – – –

Elections are always a game of positives versus negatives. If you’re the candidate, you do your best to talk yourself up and your opponent down. This year’s presidential brawl will test the depths of those downs and—very likely—the limits of  both front-runner’s efforts to go up.

In the battle over image, the two likely presidential nominees face a challenge not seen in modern history. No modern candidate has entered the fray at this point of the race with deeper negatives than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And if history is any guide, their room for improvement is scant, especially because of their nearly 100% name recognition.

“These candidates are so well known,” said veteran political observer Stuart Rothenberg, “it’s going to be difficult to change” their images.

Let’s look first at the negatives. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Mrs. Clinton was deeply under water in her favorability rating, with those holding a negative view of her swamping those who held a positive view by 24 percentage points. It was even worse for Mr. Trump, who came in 41 points under water.

Since 1992, the only soon-to-be nominee who went into May with even faintly similar numbers was Bill Clinton, who registered 11 points under water in that year. His next closest competitor on the negative index: Mitt Romney in 2012, who came in at three points below water.

So is there precedent for any sharp reversal of fortune on the image front? Yes, but it doesn’t bode well for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Clinton managed to improve by 18 points between May and November. But his image that spring was still relatively fresh, with a quarter of respondents saying they either didn’t know him or had no opinion either pro or con. For Mr. Trump, by comparison, just 11% fell into category. And for Mrs. Clinton, 12%.

Even among independents, where both of this year’s front-runners have even worse net negatives (43 for Mrs. Clinton and 49 for Mr. Trump), the past suggests there’s only so much room for improvement.

In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama improved his standing by 19 points among independents between April and November. Mr. Romney gained 13 points in 2012. But Al Gore made the biggest gains among independents in 2000, posting a 24-point improvement over that span.

In other words, even if Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton managed to match Mr. Gore’s historic image makeover among independents, they would still be about 20 points under water with that important group of swing voters.

Past elections suggest both candidates could make their best gains among fellow partisans, a warming force that is already turning up in some polls when it comes to Mr. Trump’s favorables among Republicans.

In the last WSJ/NBC News poll, Mr. Trump was dead even in his positives and negatives among Republicans, while Mrs. Clinton was up among Democrats by 43 percentage points.

Since 1992, every candidate who ended up winning the White House did so with a favorable rating of at least 80 points among his own party. And a number of them got there after having to make up significant ground since the spring. Mr. Obama, for instance, gained 37 points among Democrats in 2008, while George W. Bush leaped by 22 points among Republicans in 2000.

But even by that measure, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump both have a very long way to go before November—a distance untraversed by any candidate since the 1990s.

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