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Hillary Clinton’s popularity surges when bad things happen to her

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Hillary Clinton has a theory for why her approval ratings have taken a turn for the worse during the campaign season — and it has nothing to do with emails.

"When I have a job, I have really high approval ratings," she told Vox’s Ezra Klein in an interview. "When I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up."

For Clinton, this could be an optimistic way of looking at her approval woes. It lets her believe the campaign is a rough patch, and that if she’s elected her popularity will rebound.

Looking back over Clinton’s popularity during her many decades in public life, there might be something to this theory. But it’s deeper than the one she presented. It’s not that Americans like Clinton when she’s working — it’s that they like her least when she’s ambitious, when she’s breaking barriers and engaging in political fights. They like her most when that ambition is thwarted and she’s relegated to a more familiar, traditional role.

It’s a pattern that’s virtually unique to Hillary Clinton — or at least, the one woman with a pattern of public service like Hillary Clinton’s. And it suggests that winning over Americans won’t be nearly as simple as winning the presidency.

Clinton was most popular when she wasn’t striving for something bigger

The Clintons have been in the public eye for 25 years, and so we have richer information about what people think about Hillary than we do for nearly any other politician.

And when you go back to the beginning, March 1992, when 18 percent of Americans told Gallup they’d never heard of Hillary Clinton, a pattern starts to emerge. For the first few years, there’s more variation in her unfavorable ratings than her favorable ones — as more and more Americans make up their mind about her, the data suggested, the conclusion were negative.

The pattern during the Clinton presidency and after suggests that the closer Clinton was to the levers of power, the less she was liked. During Bill Clinton’s first term, when Hillary led the failed 1993 push for health care reform and was put in the spotlight during the Whitewater investigation, the share of Americans who viewed her unfavorably grew from 21 percent in November 1992 to 51 percent in January 1996.

During the second term, Clinton took on a more traditional role — less policy advocacy, more Vogue covers — and her popularity began to rebound. Then came the revelations of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. The president’s popularity stayed high throughout the entire scandal, but they were high already. Hillary Clinton’s approval rating climbed from 56 percent in December 1997, before the Lewinsky story broke, to what was then a historic high of 67 percent a year later.

America loves Clinton as a working, activist first lady. They liked her more as a traditional presidential wife. They liked her even more as a betrayed presidential wife.

What brought her high approval ratings to an end was her announcement that she would run for US Senate in New York. She was a lot less popular as a politician than as a first lady.

Clinton was reelected in New York in a landslide, by a much wider margin than her first victory in 2000. But nationally, her popularity never really recovered, fluctuating in Gallup’s surveys between 44 percent and 56 percent for the next six years. During her first presidential campaign, it typically hovered in the high 40s.

But the further she got from the presidency, the more popular she became: 54 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of her in August 2008, after she had conceded the Democratic nomination, up from 47 percent a year earlier, according to Gallup. She was getting more popular even before she was picked to be President Obama’s secretary of state.

This is an unusual pattern. Male politicians running for president don’t get more popular after a setback. Mitt Romney, who lost the Republican nomination in 2008, had the same favorability rating after he dropped out as he did when voting began. Both Al Gore and John Kerry were less popular a year after they lost the general election than they were the day of voting.

Clinton, on the other hand, is more popular the further she is from political ambition.

Clinton might have been popular as secretary of state because it’s a popular position

One reason Clinton’s popularity has fluctuated so much, even though Americans by now are very familiar with her, is that she’s typically played defined roles with very different levels of popularity: secretary of state. First lady. Senator. Presidential candidate.

The better Clinton conforms to what people expect of those apolitical roles, the more popular she is. When she tries to break the mold, or when she’s in a more political job that typically isn’t as popular with the public, her approval ratings fall.

Clinton wasn’t breaking any barriers as secretary of state. Two of her three immediate predecessors were women. She moved into a Cabinet post that, since Madeleine Albright’s tenure, came with both visibility and popularity. Since 1997 and through Clinton’s time in office, the secretary of state was one of the best-known, best-liked members of the Cabinet:

One possible explanation is that Clinton isn’t popular when she’s doing the work so much as she’s popular when she’s conforming to the expectations of traditionally popular roles. When she was a traditional first lady, she was popular; when she was gracious in defeat, accepting the secretary of state job, she was popular; and when she was a Cabinet official who generally stayed out of the day-to-day political fights of Obama’s first term, she was at her most popular ever.

It’s when she shakes things up — when she takes on a bigger role than most first ladies usually play, or when she runs for office as the presumptive Democratic nominee — that she’s unpopular.

And this doesn’t bode well for her presidency. American politics is more polarized than ever. It’s likely that Clinton’s approval ratings will improve as she wins over former Bernie Sanders supporters. But simply having the job, even if she does it well, isn’t likely to lead to the sky-high popularity she’s enjoyed in the past. A high-profile, very political role where she’s breaking barriers, historically, has been a challenge for Clinton.