Polls Offer Mixed View Of Bill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., in Independence, Mo. Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.

A few weeks ago, I discussed how politicians tend to be seen more favorably after they've left office than during their terms. But the last few weeks have given us the opportunity to see what can happen when one of them re-emerges -- perhaps not in a very positive way.

That earlier column was about Al Gore -- this one is about Gore's first running mate.

Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife in South Carolina. That January 26 primary now seems like a long time ago, but the former president's statements there are still echoing in the campaign. The most recent CBS News Poll was conducted a week or so after that controversy began. Did the voters think Mr. Clinton been derogatory towards his wife's competition, Barack Obama?

We needed additional time to see if there had been a sustained impact on voters. That's because Democratic primary voters in South Carolina - especially African-American voters - had remained positive about Hillary Clinton (in fact, 70 percent of Obama voters would be satisfied if Clinton were the nominee). And when asked specifically about the importance of Mr. Clinton's campaigning in their vote, the 26 percent who said it was very important actually were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than were those who did not think that campaigning mattered a lot.

That specific question did not measure much negative response to the former president.

Now, however, the nation's opinion of Mr. Clinton has declined. Back in July, favorable ratings of Clinton outnumbered unfavorable ones, 51 percent to 37 percent. In the latest poll, 46 percent are favorable and 39 percent are not.

Not surprisingly, given the racially-charged component of the comments and the coverage, the change took place more among African-Americans than among whites. Whites had split 46 percent to 41 percent on Clinton last July. Now their 43 percent-43 percent split isn't much different. But in July, blacks were favorable towards Clinton 79 percent to 7 percent. Although blacks are still among Bill Clinton's strongest supporters, their opinions today are 63 percent favorable and 19 percent not - a drop of 16 points on the positive side, and an increase of 12 points on the negative.

There were other changes, too. After the New Hampshire primary, 31 percent of African-American Democratic primary voters nationally said Bill Clinton's involvement in the Clinton campaign would make them more likely rather than less likely to vote for her. Now just 15 percent say that, while the proportion who says it would make them less likely stayed at about 13 percent.

Clinton's involvement in his wife's campaign received heavy media coverage. In fact, in the week surrounding the South Carolina primary, there was more coverage of him than of any of the Republican candidates, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

By last week, that coverage and commentary had made many American voters think as pundits. When we asked Americans if President Clinton's involvement helped or hurt his wife's campaign, 41 percent said his involvement had hurt. Just 28 percent said he helped. African-Americans were more evenly divided. But still, 36 percent of blacks said he had hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign while 31 percent said he had helped.

The larger question, of course, is whether or not President Clinton's campaigning will hurt his wife's campaign in the long run, and whether feelings about her would be affected. In South Carolina, just 19 percent of African-Americans voted for Clinton. They gave 78 percent of their votes to Obama. That was not much different from the 16 percent of the African-American vote Clinton received in the Super Tuesday primary states combined. And half of those who voted for Obama still said they would be satisfied if she became the nominee.

In the national CBS News Poll, 63 percent of both white and black Democratic primary voters had a favorable view of Hillary Clinton. Only about one in six voters were unfavorable. Those results were also not much different than they had been in the CBS News/New York Times poll conducted just after the New Hampshire primary, and before the South Carolina controversy.

If Hillary Clinton were elected president, the majority of Americans -- Democrat, Republican and independent -- expect it will, after all, be her presidency. After asking about Bill Clinton's impact on the campaign, CBS News asked this about another possible Clinton presidency: "If Hillary Clinton becomes President, do you think Bill Clinton will have too much influence, too little influence, or about the right amount of influence on the decisions Hillary Clinton makes as president?" Just 22 percent of Democratic primary voters said he would have too much influence.

And Fox News asked this of ALL Americans: "If Hillary Clinton were elected president, who you think would really be president -- do you think Hillary would really be charge, Bill Clinton would really be in charge, or would there be a co-presidency?" Fifty-nine percent said, for better or worse, the "real" president would be Hillary.
By Kathy Frankovic