Why does Hillary Clinton's campaign still lack enthusiasm?

Despite coming up against one of the least popular general election candidates in recent memory, there is little enthusiasm about her campaign

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File photo. Image: John Locher / AP/Press Association Images

With the polls so far predicting that Hillary Clinton is headed for a win in November against Donald Trump, you could be forgiven for thinking that there would be a huge amount of celebration among rank and file members of the Democratic Party.

With their candidate projected to take the presidency with as many as 350 (or more) votes in the electoral college, they are looking at a result that could be almost as comprehensive in those terms as Barack Obama's win over John McCain in 2008. 

Furthermore, she looks set to become the first female President of the United States, a landmark achievement that should serve to galvanise support for her candidacy.

However, after a long, drawn out primary campaign in which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders whipped up incredible enthusiasm for his campaign and its ideas, the reality is that few people are excited about a Clinton Presidency. 

Her opponent, Donald Trump, goes into the campaign with historic unfavourability ratings among large swathes of voters, and has also managed to offend people at almost every turn. 

He's called Mexicans criminals and rapists, was slow to disavow the support of white supremacists, stated that women who seek abortions should be punished, shouted "Look at my African American over here!" at a rally, insinuated that a judge Gonzalo Curiel wouldn't be able to rule on his case as he was "Mexican" (he was born in Indiana) and, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, congratulated himself on "being right on radical Islamic terrorism". 

In a normal race, just one of those issues would see a candidate forced to drop out as a result of public backlash, but this is no normal race.

Both Clinton and Trump share a very high unfavourability rating, with Real Clear Politics giving them both a 55% level among voters. As disliked as Trump is, Clinton isn't far behind him, but why is a seasoned political figure like Hillary struggling to muster any enthusiasm for her run at the White House?

Legacy issues

For Clinton, that lack of popularity is not only among Republicans, but also from some of those in her own party, after she and Bernie Sanders clashed on a number of issues throughout the course of the contests. However, as Professor Jack Thompson of the UCD Clinton Institute points out, there are plenty of other reasons that the former Secretary of State is struggling with voters. 

"There are a lot of long-standing reasons that Hillary Clinton faces these high unfavourability ratings," outlines Professor Thompson. "She's been in the national spotlight for 25 years. Very few politicians who are in the public eye that long can maintain consistently high favourability ratings. The US political system is pretty brutal, and it's pretty good at tearing people down."

While on the Republican ballot there were 17 different names to choose from during the primaries, it was clear from the early stages that Clinton was the leading candidate for the Democrats, meaning that she was the only one in the crosshairs. 

Although they did have to contend with trying to rise above the personal insults of Donald Trump, you were more or less guaranteed to elicit a cheer from the crowd if you took a pop at Hillary on the campaign trail. That wasn't always the case however, as Prof. Thompson highlights:

"She used to be every Republican's favourite Democrat; they were very complimentary of her and often used her as a foil against Obama. They'd point to Clinton and say she's our type of Democrat, why can't Barack Obama be more like her? This changed pretty quickly when it became likely that she was going to run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, and this is when the investigation into the attack on the US diplomatic mission in September 2012 took off."

That particular issue is one that has been hanging over her head for the entirety of her campaign, and even though the FBI stated that they would not be recommending prosecution as a result of her use of a private email server for classified emails, the recent Republican National Convention dedicated an entire night of proceedings to her handling of the attack. Widows and bereaved mothers of fallen soldiers appeared in a display which Charles P. Pierce in Esquire described as "weaponised grief."

Similarly, a poorly-timed bout of laughter during Congressional hearings on the matter also made headlines for the wrong reasons.

Of course, dealing with scandal and past mistakes is par for the course as a politician, but Clinton seems to struggle to overcome it more than others, partially because she is more competent than charismatic. 

The picture of her as a cold and somewhat uncaring candidate is one that seemingly doesn't marry with the reality of her in private, with colleagues on both sides of the Senate noting that , evidence by the way she got deals done in a bipartisan way during her term. 

However, that political wrangling may also be something that counts against her, given who her opposition is. 

The outsider vote

Somehow, "billionaire" Donald Trump has managed to convince at least a section of Republican voters that he is an outsider, and by a true definition of the term, he is. 

He's never held political office, he's not liked by many in his own party and he seems to differ with the Conservative elite on a number of issues that had, up until this year, been seen as key policy tenets.

With an increasingly splintered media landscape,Trump's message has found a home across a number of sites, from Twitter to Fox News. Furthermore, the rules are being bent for Trump himself, since he generates clicks and ratings, and because he lacks the filter that many other politicians have necessarily built up over years to say something that makes easy headlines for the media. Somehow, while railing against the media for biased or unfair coverage, he has also played them incredibly well and used them to boost his profile. 

He is, after all, something straight from the gossip pages and the world of reality TV. The best training for the debates against Trump would have been inside a WWE ring rather than the debate clubs of Ivy League schools, and it made for entertaining television. At every turn, Trump was providing something very different to what people were used to, while Clinton vied to prove that she's more or less a traditional candidate.  

Her cosy relationship with Wall Street hasn't helped that reputation either, and there hasn't been a huge campaign pushing to detail his relationship with the financial powerhouse in the same way that there has for Clinton.

Key to that has been the transcripts of speeches she gave to bankers and financial groups, which have become the focus of a huge amount of attention. The American voters have, since the 1970s, distrusted the government more than they have big business, and being found at the confluence of the two in the way Clinton has does not bode well.  

As Prof. Thompson notes, the initial reporting on those transcripts shows that "they're very boring, they're very straight forward, but because there's a degree of uncertainty there it allows people like to Trump to say 'oh well, clearly she's been bought and paid for by Wall St.'"

A woman's touch

Of course, as Clinton breaks through the glass ceiling, it's important to note that is one of the major obstacles which has stood in her way. 

"In Clinton's case, sexism plays at least some role in her negative image," explains Prof. Thompson. "When you speak to figures in both parties, when you look at how voters react to her, they often describe her as screechy, sometimes even a Lady Macbeth type figure. These are the types of challenges that male politicians really don't face. 

As a traditional politician, she is held to the standards that her opponent Donald Trump isn't; she will talk of real policies, of tax plans and healthcare, while he can talk about a financially unfeasible border wall without facing much in the way of fact checking.

Further to that, however, is the fact that she's a woman, which means there's talk about her choice of clothing, her tone in debates, and how she speaks when she raises her voice.

As unfair as it is, Clinton is almost used to it at this stage. "Even back in the 1990s when she was First Lady," explains Thompson, "there was a tendency to view her ambition and her toughness as somehow inappropriate for a woman. I think it's not quite as formidable a hurdle as it once was, but it's still a big hurdle."

The true import of the enthusiasm, or lack thereof, in her campaign may be put into stark relief when it comes to the election in November. While Trump is depending on (mainly white) voters to be stirred up by his rhetoric enough to get out and vote, Clinton also needs to hope that some of the enthusiasm from the Bernie campaign carries over to hers, meaning people will be motivated to get out and vote and make sure that Trump stays out of the White House. 

With so many Americans disillusioned not only with the political process but also deep rifts emerging in the parties themselves, there's more at stake in the general in November than there has been in many recent contests. With appointments to the Supreme Court still to be decided and the balance of power in the Senate possibly swinging also, a bad loss for the Republicans to a candidate as widely disliked as Hilary might cause them to re-examine their Growth and Opportunity Report from 2012, but this time take their own advice.

Despite not having that sense of celebration that other campaigns in the past have had, there's a good chance that she will walk into the role, but her chances of staying in it beyond one term may prove a more difficult thing to predict.