Bill Clinton, "first-gentleman-to-be"

Public opinion of Bill Clinton as President influenced what people thought of his wife Hillary Clinton in the past – and in the present?

We speak with Charles Prysby at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. He’s had his finger on the public’s pulse about Hillary Clinton ever since her husband’s first presidential campaign in 1992.  

ResearchGate: How was Bill Clinton perceived during his first term, and will he evoke the same extreme reactions as the potential “first gentleman?”

Charles Prysby: I suspect that feelings toward Bill Clinton as the “first man” will be very polarized, partly because they were in the past. Feeling thermometer scores are a way to assess public opinion, and they work on a 0 – 100 scale: 0 degrees is really cold, 50 degrees is neutral, and 100 degrees is warm. 46 percent of the public felt either very warm or very cold towards him in 1996. It would also partly have to do with him being an unusual presidential spouse. He would play a much more political role than most first ladies have done. Also, I suspect that feelings toward him would probably be very linked to Hillary Clinton: People who feel positive towards her are going to feel positive towards him, and vice versa.

RG: How did the Monica Lewinsky scandal influence the first lady image, and how do you think it could influence Hillary Clinton’s campaign now?

CP: I suspect that it’s not going to play a big role in the campaign directly, but I think it has indirectly shaped people’s attitudes. Bill Clinton’s personal behavior has caused negativity towards him, and even towards Hillary Clinton for defending him. I think this plays into her integrity problem, which isn’t caused by just one thing. The current flap about her private email server, and seemingly not being truthful about the 2012 Benghazi attack, also pose some very serious questions about her integrity. The Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals before that show there’s an accumulation of dishonesty about, or surrounding, her. This means that when she faces other integrity issues, the public will be more likely to think it fits in with the general pattern.

RG: How will the public view their relationship if Hillary is nominated as the Democratic Presidential Candidate?

CP: I suspect people would see Bill Clinton as playing a significant role in a potential Hillary Clinton administration. And this could be used to her advantage. Democrats may want to remind voters that the Clinton years were basically good years: The economy was doing very well, and there was peace and prosperity in the country. Voting for Hillary might be thought of as a return to that, which is a big contrast with Jeb Bush, for example. Under Bill Clinton we had a wonderful economy for eight years; under Jeb’s brother and father we had two recessions. The Bushes bring us recessions, and the Clinton’s bring us prosperity – who do you want for president?

Of course, another possibility is that Hillary’s link to the Clinton presidency of the 1990s will result in some voters seeing her as strongly linked to past governments and therefore as part of the establishment. Some of the Republican candidates, such as Rubio, Trump, or Cruz, might think that they could present themselves as representing a new and fresh approach, in sharp contrast to another Clinton presidency.

RG: You began to study public perception towards Hillary Clinton during her husband’s first Presidential term? Why?  

CP: We became interested in the topic because we saw that attitudes toward Hillary Clinton became much more polarized during Bill Clinton's first term. In 1992, Hillary’s average score was about 54 degrees, and only 21 percent of the public felt either very warm or cold towards her. This changed after Bill Clinton’s first term in 1996, however. Her average score stayed a little over 50 degrees, but around 20 percent of her score was over 85 degrees, and 20 percent was under 15 degrees. That means over 40 percent of the public thought either very favorably or very badly of her after that first term.

RG: Why did perceptions of her change during the study’s four-year period?

CP: I think there are several reasons for this, one of which is linked to Bill Clinton - whose score was also polarized in 1996 – and the nature of politics at that time. Looking back to the 1980s, feelings towards the president weren’t as tightly connected with the party as they are today. This changed in the 1990s with the Clinton administration, and the phenomenon continued, perhaps to a greater extent, with George W. Bush and Barack Obama. People soon became much more polarized along partisan lines, and this is reflected in the attitudes towards the President. Democrats would strongly disapprove a Republican candidate or President, whereas Republicans would strongly approve of them, and vice versa. So public opinion towards Hillary Clinton was very much tied into this. She didn’t take on the traditional role of the first lady. Instead, she chose to play a strong role in Bill Clinton’s administration and take on health care reform, for example. It’s only natural that the polarized feelings towards Bill Clinton would be reflected in the polarized feelings towards Hillary at the end of his first term.

RG: How did public opinion towards her differ to former first ladies?

CP: Most former first ladies were not the subject of much research in this area because they did not generate much controversy. They were more traditional and so didn’t really have the same polarization. Barbara Bush is an example of a traditional first lady, and feelings towards her were very positive. Most first ladies before Hillary were not involved in policy, and usually took on projects that would have widespread approval – like reducing drug addiction or promoting good health, for example. This enabled them to travel the country in a non-partisan way and do things that both Democrats and Republicans would find laudable. Hillary Clinton deviated from that significantly. But she, and perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt, were an exception. Subsequent first ladies went back to a more traditional role, including Michelle Obama.

RG: How do you think it’s changed now she’s running for President?

CP: We do not have any feeling thermometer data on Hillary Clinton for 2016, but we do have these data for her in the fall of 2012. At that time, her average thermometer rating was 58 degrees, better than what it was when she was the First Lady. Feeling toward her were still rather polarized in 2012, as they were in 1996, with 45 percent of the people having a very positive or a very negative view of her. However, unlike 1996, very positive responses outnumbered very negative responses about two to one.

My impression is that feelings towards Hillary Clinton are still quite polarized today. Some of that is connected to her time as first lady: some Republicans have an unfavorable view of her all the way back to the first Clinton administration, and nothing has changed in their minds since. But now, of course, we have a younger generation coming to the polls who may not personally remember the Clinton years. These voters may only know Hillary Clinton from her time as Senator and Secretary of State, where she’s performed well.

What I said earlier about today’s partisan polarization will also play into public opinion towards her now. Republicans tend to have a pretty negative view towards Obama’s job performance throughout his Presidency, and that’s going to transfer over to Hillary. She’ll also get a lot of his Democratic supporters, too – but maybe not all. Hillary Clinton does have some integrity problems, even amongst Democrats.

Feature image courtesy of Terry Ross