What Do “High Negatives” Mean? Or: Hillary Clinton On Her Worst Day Is Better Than Donald Trump On His Best

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Posted in: Politics

One of the well-worn tropes of the 2016 presidential campaign is that the presumptive nominees of the two major parties both have “high negatives.” For months, the numbers of people who tell pollsters that they have negative opinions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are consistently the highest ever recorded for presidential candidates.

Trump’s negatives are typically much higher than Clinton’s, but commentators have taken to describing the election in particularly negative terms, saying that voters will more than ever be deciding whom to vote against, rather than being happy about the people who will receive their votes. Or, in the words of a Washington Post news article describing a recent poll showing Trump’s and Clinton’s negative ratings at 70% and 55%, respectively, such high negatives are “the latest sign Americans are dreading their general election options.”

This narrative, however, is based on a meaningless statistical comparison and seriously misunderstands what it means when people say that they have a negative opinion about someone or something.

More importantly, this particular version of false equivalence is dangerously misleading. It distorts poll results to make it seem as if what people dislike about Hillary Clinton is somehow comparable to what people dislike about Donald Trump, such that people who grudgingly vote for one or the other candidate would supposedly be weighing equally bad outcomes.

The reality is quite different. It is true that many people have vague, generally negative feelings about Clinton that are based on little more than repeated attacks against her, most of which have been shown to be simply false and none of the remainder of which are disqualifying for being President. I will describe this at greater length below.

Trump’s negatives, by contrast, are based on a massive and growing body of evidence that shows that he should never be allowed near the White House. Understanding the difference between the two candidates’ negative poll ratings is critical to anyone who wishes to avoid making damaging analytical errors.

Comparing That Which Cannot Be Compared: Far, Far Beyond Apples and Oranges

Rankings and statistical scores can be fun. For example, a popular website called Rotten Tomatoes provides percentage rankings of movies. Each film is given a score from 0 to 100, and people understandably think that a movie with a score of, say, 90 is much better than a movie with a score of 55. Understanding how the score is actually determined, however, shows that this is not necessarily true.

The Rotten Tomatoes formula turns out to be disturbingly simplistic. The site takes the reviews written by a roster of movie critics from around the world and aggregates their responses into a single number. This means that every review is reduced to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and the number of reviews that are deemed positive is divided by the total number of reviews. Hence, if 35 out of 50 critics give a movie even a slightly positive review while the other critics pan it, the score is 70. If another movie has 35 ecstatic reviews and 15 not-quite-positive reviews, it also receives a score of 70.

What could be misleading about that? Take one of last year’s blockbusters, “Jurassic World.” When it was released, that film scored over 70 on Rotten Tomatoes, which is generally considered a critical consensus that the movie is of high quality. But in fact, reading a sampling of the reviews showed that almost all of the positive reviews boiled down to something like this: “Sure, the plot is stupid and the acting is terrible, but audiences cannot help but be entertained by computer-generated dinosaurs.” By contrast, many films with lower scores have negative reviews that say something more like this: “I cannot ultimately give the film a thumbs-up, but it is inventive and interesting and its positive aspects are undeniable.”

How does this apply to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Clearly, when people say that they have positive or negative impressions of something, those positives and negatives can mean very different things. People can say that they “hate” getting food poisoning at a restaurant, and they can also say that they “hate” when the chef uses too much cumin in the curried potatoes.

Saying that large numbers of people have negative opinions of Clinton and Trump, then, does not tell us anything about how the two compare. It is like saying, “Is a fire engine more red than a mountain is high?” What people dislike about Clinton is very different from what people dislike about Trump, as is the intensity of the negative feelings and the effects of those negative assessments on possible presidential performance.

Any candidate who receives high negative ratings would have reason to worry, of course, but two candidates with high negatives simply cannot be compared on the basis of those overall assessments.

Because a negative rating can mean anything from “I guess I’ve never really liked her, but I can’t really say why” to “He scares me to death, and I would do anything to stop him from becoming President,” calling Clinton and Trump equivalently disliked seriously misrepresents reality.

Instead, we need to look at the content of the negative responses to the two candidates.

Clinton’s Negatives: Where There Is a Lot of Smoke, Many People Lose the Ability to See Clearly

As anyone who has had even the most minimal contact with the U.S. political system over the last generation is aware, American conservatives developed an immediate and intense dislike of Hillary Clinton. From her early decision to keep her maiden name to her defense of her choice not to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, Clinton embodied “the Sixties” in a way that allowed Republicans to focus their fear of social change on one woman.

This has resulted in a constant drumbeat of negative portrayals of Clinton in the press, with the narrative of Clinton as a soulless political striver having taken hold even in the non-rightwing ether. Many supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy, for example, repeated the tropes about Clinton as being “in it for herself,” or “not being trustworthy,” and similarly negative assessments.

One of the more puzzling stories that one hears about Clinton is that she and her husband formed a conspiracy at some point in their youth, hatching a plot to make him president and then to make her president. But even if that were true, so what? What exactly is the complaint?

Certainly, many people have a visceral negative reaction to ambitious people. Literature is filled with examples of loathsome characters whose overweening ambition makes them the villains of their stories. But there are also plenty of people with loads of ambition who are trying to do good things. All of the American presidents who are viewed as good presidents by one measure or another were ambitious. It is not possible to become president without ambition.

What matters is what a president does while in office. And although people can certainly disagree with Hillary Clinton’s ambitions (in a different sense) for what she might achieve as president, saying that she is an ambitious person is merely a content-free way to say that something else about her might be worrisome.

Many people will disagree with Clinton, or with any politician, about policy goals. Voters who are strongly anti-abortion would understandably view Clinton as a bad choice for president, because of her strong support for protecting reproductive constitutional rights.

On the other side of the political spectrum, I absolutely understand the frustration of the Sanders supporters who worry that Clinton will not be sufficiently committed to reining in the financial sector. I understand this because I have long shared those concerns. But saying that one does not “trust” Clinton in that sense is not the same thing as saying that she is a congenital liar, even though too many Sanders supporters repeated that Republican attack line against Clinton as well.

It is, therefore, utterly reasonable for a person to say negative things about Clinton that are supportable by both evidence and emotion. Clinton does have closer ties with Wall Street than I would prefer. She does have a history of defaulting toward the soft center-right policy positions that her husband supported.

Of course, the content of those policies ought to have made the Clintons’ rightwing critics happy. But because the established narrative on the right was that “Bill and Hill” are evil incarnate, it never mattered that they were actually willing to compromise and frequently infuriate their own party’s strongest supporters.

Again, however, this kind of negative assessment is of the sort that boils down to saying, “Well, I wish I were more certain that she will do what I want on this or that issue.” Describing Clinton as untrustworthy in that way is consistent with one definition of the word “trust,” but calling someone untrustworthy in this sense merely means that her decisions might sometimes be disappointing. It is not a character issue.

The larger negative narrative, of course, is that Clinton is not just untrustworthy on one policy or another, but that she is “plagued with scandals” and similarly hysteria-laden descriptions. Last September, for example, the website InsideGov.com offered a list of “The Top 17 Hillary Clinton Scandals,” feeding the idea that Clinton is the embodiment of non-policy-related political deceit.

What is most interesting about that list, however, is that it includes item after item that have been debunked definitively, sometimes for decades. The “Vince Foster Scandal” (in which a Clinton aide’s suicide in 1993 was supposedly a Clinton-directed murder) shows up first, at #17 on the list. To InsideGov’s credit, their cutesy “scandal-meter” score for that supposed scandal is zero, which apparently means that, as the saying goes, there is no there there. Of course, this has not stopped Donald Trump from trying to bring up this issue again in 2016, but that says everything about Trump’s shamelessness and nothing about the existence of an actual scandal.

On the other hand, InsideGov somehow gives a score of 5 to the “scandal” involving Clinton’s claim to have dodged sniper fire in Bosnia in the 1990s. During the 2008 presidential primaries, Clinton admitted that her description was untrue. But if that is what counts as a “scandal,” then we have truly dumbed down that word to utter meaninglessness. She said something self-serving, she was called on it, she blustered for awhile, and then she came clean. Not her finest hour, to be sure, but that kind of political preening is seen all the time. It is not a scandal.

Meanwhile, the Whitewater investigation is treated as a scandal with a score of 8, even though that investigation produced no prosecutions and no evidence of fraud, but “it ultimately led to Kenneth Starr’s investigations” that led to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Benghazi earns a 9, even though multiple investigations led by Republicans in Congress have failed to prove any wrongdoing on Clinton’s part. And somehow the question of Clinton’s private email server counts as both Scandal #2 and Scandal #1, with the server itself and Clinton’s explanations for it constituting separate items on the list.

In other words, we have a list of seventeen supposed scandals, one of which the reporter admits is not even a micro-scandal, and others that count as scandals apparently because people still talk about them as scandals, no matter that many have been repeatedly debunked. Nor is there an attempt at all to put any of these stories in perspective. Scandal #7, for example, simply says that “the Clintons haven’t said how they decide to designate their speaking fees as income versus charity work.” Is that bad? Who knows? But it is presented as “a Clinton scandal,” of course.

I do not mean to come down too hard on InsideGov’s reporter. Maybe she meant to put together this list to expose how empty the Clinton-in-perpetual-scandal meme truly is. (The tone of the piece suggests otherwise, but I cannot rule it out.) The more important point is that a mainstream political website decided that it was newsworthy to repackage a laundry list of non-scandals as if there really was fire behind all of that smoke.

What are typical voters supposed to think? They hear that Clinton “seems ambitious.” After decades of attacks by her enemies (repeated uncritically by a credulous political press corps), she is described as “secretive.” And there is now this impenetrable haze of oft-repeated accusations that make people just … wonder.

This is different from the internet trolls who rave about the Clintons having “blood on their hands.” People who generally are not drawn to conspiracy theories nonetheless hear repeatedly that something—they are not sure what, but there are some things out there—is fishy about Clinton. And then, when a pollster calls, many of those voters say that they have a generally negative impression of Hillary Clinton. Why should anyone be surprised?

By Contrast, There Is No Need to Wonder About Trump’s Negatives

The reasons that people can offer to have a negative opinion about Donald Trump and his political views could fill several columns. His entire campaign has been divisive, vilifying immigrants of all kinds (and the children of immigrants, including a federal judge), insulting women, and constantly changing his statements about policy while denying having done so.

As I have described in my two most recent Verdict columns (here and here), Trump’s record suggests that he has no respect for the rule of law or anything resembling the norms of acceptable behavior (which he dismisses as mere political correctness). He responds to questions about his policies and priorities by personally attacking his critics. Yesterday’s Verdict column by Professor Michael Dorf regarding Trump’s response to the Orlando murders provides just one of many telling analyses of how Trump’s views would make the world a more dangerous place, if they were ever put into practice.

When people who claim to have a negative view about Hillary Clinton imagine her being president, what exactly is it that they could reasonably fear? She will work to enact some policies with which they disagree. She might not be as vigilant about Wall Street as she could be. (On the other hand, maybe she is exactly the right person to bring about real change there.) She will probably, on more than one occasion, answer questions in frustratingly vague terms.

She will, in short, be a president who some people will like and some people will dislike. Most importantly, however, she will leave office with the country’s political system intact, and she will do everything that she can to fight against hatred and intolerance in the U.S. and the world.

Donald Trump promises—indeed, he insistently brags—that he will do the opposite. His version of making the country great involves the spreading of hatred and fear. When people say that they have a negative opinion of Trump, they are not offering a vague unease about some old accusations that they do not really understand. They are saying that he scares them to their very core, and for good reason.

Now that is a “negative” that is in a category by itself.

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  • g kelly

    Professor Buchanan, thanks for this explanation of why the press meme on the negatives attached to the candidates in the election is a false equivalency. Your analysis is very helpful.

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