Hillary Clinton's popularity is independent of her husband's

October 12, 1999

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's popularity among the American public is nearly completely independent of her husband's approval rating, a new study suggests.

The results show that different forces shape the public image of President Bill Clinton and that of his wife, said Anthony Mughan, co-author of the study and professor of political science at Ohio State University.

"It's really quite surprising. We believed the First Lady?s image with the public would be at least somewhat related to the President's, but we didn't find that," Mughan said.

Researchers found that changes in Hillary's Clinton's favorability ratings were driven mostly by the amount of media coverage she received, and less by partisanship and national issues such as the economy.

Mughan said that if Hillary Clinton runs for the U.S. Senate in New York, as expected, these results imply that her husband's popularity will neither help nor hurt her campaign.

Mughan conducted the study with Barry Burden, a former graduate student at Ohio State now at Harvard University. It was published in a recent issue of the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.

For the study, the researchers analyzed month-by-month poll results between January 1993 and December 1997 that asked Americans whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the First Lady. They used surveys conducted by the CBS, Gallup and Yankelovich polling organizations. They then compared these to results of polls that asked Americans whether they approved of the job that President Clinton was doing.

"We found that there was no relation between the poll results for Hillary Clinton and those for Bill Clinton," Mughan said. "This suggests Hillary Clinton is her own person in the eyes of the American people and not a pale reflection of a highly visible husband."

Mughan said the study also examined what exactly drove Hillary Clinton's favorability ratings among the public. Results showed that the state of the economy did not influence her ratings, like they do the President's. In addition, partisanship didn't explain how her popularity waxed and waned.

"Obviously, Hillary is more popular among Democrats than she is among Republicans," Mughan said. "But that can't explain why her favorability ratings ranged from about 70 percent to about 50 percent. The number of Democrats didn't change that much."

The study found that Hillary Clinton's prominence in the media was the most important influence on how her popularity rose and fell during the study period. The researchers looked at coverage of the First Lady in four major newspapers, and separated the stories into those that covered scandals -- such as Travelgate and Whitewater -- and those that covered other issues. Overall, the more non-scandal stories in the newspapers, the higher the favorability ratings. Scandal stories lowered her ratings. In fact, scandal stories had twice as strong an effect on public reaction than did the other stories.

"Negative coverage in the nation's leading newspapers has a greater impact on the public than does positive coverage," Mughan said. "The clear rise in newspaper scandal coverage in 1994 probably explains much of Hillary Clinton's popular free fall during that period."

Surprisingly, though, the findings revealed that scandal-based coverage of the First Lady on the major television network news programs was associated with higher favorability ratings among the public. While this result was surprising, Mughan said it fits with theories that frequent television viewers do not remember much information beyond visual images.

"In the case of television coverage, this may mean that any coverage is good coverage," he said.

Although the study wasn't designed to look at the issue, Mughan said the results may have some implications for Hillary Clinton's possible Senate bid in New York. Based on these results, her husband will neither be an asset or liability to her efforts, Mughan explained. The findings show that her public image now is "free-floating," he said, based not on any stable image, but on the amount and kind of media coverage she is receiving.

"In order to be successful, she probably has to develop some kind of identity with the public so her popularity is anchored. Right now she is dependent on media coverage to define her status with the public," Mughan said.
-end-
Contact: Anthony Mughan, (614) 292-9657; Mughan.1@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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