Is the Clinton Brand Damaged? In a Word, Yes

Have the last few weeks hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances to become president? It’s tough to see how they couldn’t have. After all, numerous stories involving the appearance of quid pro quos with questionable foreign regimes, investigations into her use of the family’s foundation as an intermediary for shady business dealings, and reports of deleted governmental emails stored on rogue servers would be enough to sink the political career of almost anyone.

But Hillary Clinton isn’t just anyone. She’s a well-known, if not well-respected brand that has displayed immense staying power. So it’s difficult to get a bead on exactly what impact the spate of troubling news had. It was a task made even more difficult by dueling polls from well-respected pollsters revealing what appears to be conflicting results. Just take a look at these two descriptions:

First, the Wall Street Journal:

Hillary Clinton’s stature has been battered after more than a month of controversy over her fundraising and email practices, but support for her among Democrats remains strong and unshaken, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds.

In just seven weeks, a period in which Mrs. Clinton formally began her presidential campaign, the share of people with a negative view of her jumped to 42% from 36% in last month’s survey, and only a quarter of registered voters said they viewed her as honest and straightforward, down from 38% last summer.

Second, the New York Times:

Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have initially weathered a barrage of news about her use of a private email account when she was secretary of state and the practices of her family’s foundation, an indication that she is starting her second presidential bid with an unusual durability among Democratic voters.

Americans now view Mrs. Clinton more favorably and more see her as a strong leader than they did earlier in the year, despite weeks of scrutiny about her ethics, a New York Times/CBS News poll has found. And nearly nine in 10 Democrats say the nation is ready to elect a woman president.

Is her “stature battered” or has she “weathered the barrage”? Surely it can’t be both. So what the heck is going on here?

As it turns out the answer is pretty simple. The CBS/New York Times poll is comparing this month’s ratings to its last poll, which took place in the immediate aftermath of the email controversy. In contrast, the first NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that is used as a frame of reference was taken in early March, before the first torrent of bad press for Clinton.

When you eliminate the differing frames of reference the polls begin to look much more alike. The New York Times poll finds that 35 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton, 36 percent have an unfavorable view and 28 percent don’t know enough. The Wall Street Journal poll finds that 42 percent have a positive view, 42 percent have a negative view, and 14 percent are neutral. The Wall Street Journal poll allows respondents to be “somewhat” positive or negative, which may be why more people felt comfortable giving an answer. But either way you slice it, the polls show that at best only half of Americans who know Clinton have a flattering view of her.

That’s really bad news for Team Clinton. As Stephen L. Carter writes for Bloomberg, Clinton’s staying power in the face of seemingly disastrous scandals can be attributed to trademark theory, which is to say “the full price one pays for a good is the sum of the price in money and the search costs.” In the political context that means that voters may not prefer the Clinton brand because it is better than the others, they prefer it for no other reason that it is familiar, which means they get to avoid the costs and risks that go along with searching for something new.

The problem for Clinton is that this type of support is at its zenith right now, when every voter can correctly assume that Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president, but nobody has a clue which among the dozen-or-so Republicans candidates will win the party’s nomination. But once the field is cleared and the Republican candidate becomes a known quantity, voters will have a ready comparison for the tainted Clinton brand.

Unless Hillary can bounce back in a big way, her lead over a faceless Republican may not be enough, especially with continued hits to her character. Then again, this puts tremendous pressure on Republicans to make sure that the face they select is a brand worth buying.