Clinton Losing Ground in Polls; Body Language Suggests Servergate Frustration
Hillary Clinton released a new campaign ad Wednesday aimed at the theme of rebuilding the middle class as questions continue to swirl around her emails and a new poll suggests the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is losing ground to rivals in both parties.“The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top…We need to have people believing that their work will be rewarded, so I’m going to do everything I can to try to get that deck reshuffled so being middle class means something again,” Clinton says in the ad.
The focus on economic themes comes a day after a heated exchange with reporters over questions about Clinton’s use of a private email server during her term as secretary of state.
Asked by a reporter whether she wiped the server’s data before turning it over to the FBI, Clinton joked, “What, like with a cloth?”
Following Clinton’s comments, the Republican National Committee began offering a “Secret Server Wiper” on its website for $5, a cloth with an inversion of Clinton’s campaign logo on it.
“Do you have a secret server you need to wipe clean? Having trouble clearing out those pesky Top Secret emails? Well Hillary’s got just the thing: the Secret Server Wiper,” the product description states.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump attacked Clinton over the email issue with an Instagram video earlier this week.
“Look, it’s ether criminal or incompetent, it’s one or another… either gross incompetence or criminal, and neither’s acceptable to be president,” Trump said in an interview with CNN Wednesday.
Clinton has maintained that she did not send emails containing classified information or receive emails with information that was marked as classified. Investigators have not accused her of any wrongdoing or established that anything criminal occurred, but the inspector general for the intelligence community has claimed that several emails included classified information.
Body language experts who analyzed video of Clinton’s brief question-and-answer session with reporters Tuesday said she displayed signs of frustration and anger when challenged about the server.
“What’s interesting is her gestures are very expansive, very large and away from her body” earlier in the press conference, said Patti Wood of Communication Dynamics. “That’s a very confident baseline. She was feeling very good about what she was saying.”
When Fox News reporter Ed Henry pressed Clinton about the server, her gestures became “more striking and forceful and weapon-like.”
“All of that shows a desire to retreat from the truth or retreat from how she was being questioned. She didn’t want to go off script at all,” Wood said.
Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and author of “What Every Body Is Saying,” said Clinton’s face became distorted in a way that indicates stress.
“You’ll see how it’s almost like a caricature how distorted the face becomes,” he said, pointing to lip compression, squinting, and the way Clinton’s nose comes up a little as her face tenses up.
“These are all indicative of psychological discomfort.”
Dr. Lillian Glass, a human behavior and body language expert, said Clinton’s gestures seemed unusually defensive and angry, particularly noting how her hands were balled up in fists. Glass also highlighted the way Clinton stammered in her response to Henry.
“This has never been Hillary…Hillary Clinton has never stammered in her life publicly,” she said.
Glass said Clinton went through “a myriad of emotional facial gestures” while thinking of an answer and making the “cloth” joke. “It’s too much emotion for a simple question.”
However, Glass said Clinton’s body language in the second part of her answer when she insists that she has done everything she can and turned over everything indicates honesty, pointing out a shift in Clinton’s tone and posture.
“Obviously it threw her off and it angered her,” Glass said, but beyond the anger, her communication projected honesty. The frustration and the animated body language could help Clinton with some voters.
“People are wanting to see the real Hillary with a lot of emotion,” she said.
Clinton Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri echoed that sentiment in an interview with Bloomberg Politics Wednesday.
“She’s sitting there—in this case she’s standing there—and she’s taking all these questions and I, you know, I think she actually shows good humor about it and also a little bit of humanity,” Palmieri said. “People always say we need to see authentic Hillary, and if she gets a little frustrated then you get to see that too.”
According to political science experts, though, the awkward moment with reporters Tuesday was emblematic of a tone-deaf mishandling of the email issue that has plagued Clinton’s campaign for months.
“Humor isn’t going to work and stomping off away from reporters in that auditorium is also probably not going to really work,” said Dr. Steffen Schmidt, a professor at Iowa State University. He also picked up on Clinton’s frustration about these questions.
“She seems really on edge, and she’s an edgy woman in that sense anyway…This is driving her nuts.”
Clinton also joked about the email issue at an event in Iowa over the weekend, saying she loves Snapchat because “those messages disappear all by themselves.” John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University, said humor can be an effective way for a candidate to deflect a scandal, but not for Clinton.
“It could [work] if somebody had a sense of humor, but Hillary Clinton should never try to defuse anything with a joke,” he said.
Part of the problem, according to Carroll, is that she lacks the “natural political ability” that her husband has, which helped him overcome many controversies during his presidency in the 1990s.
“She’s reading out of the standard Clinton playbook, except she can’t run those plays…This isn’t the 90s. She’s faced with a completely different media world.”
Tom Whalen, a professor of social science at Boston University, agreed that Clinton’s approach to damage control seems anachronistic.
“She’s acting like it’s the 1990s again,” he said, “doing battle with the press at the White House.”
Between that and her jokes that imply she’s out of touch with modern technology, Carroll said Clinton seems “frankly like a historic figure…a relic of the past.”
Schmidt said frustration with the media and defiance may play well with Clinton’s diehard supporters, but it will turn off voters who find her use of a private email server for government business questionable.
“Even the most unsophisticated people know that is a very suspicious kind of way of doing business,” he said.
“She’s essentially conveying to people that she shouldn’t be subject to this kind of questioning on this particular topic,” Carroll said.
That attitude just serves to further a negative perception many voters already have about the Clintons, and a shrinking number of people may be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“There is a sort of pre-established narrative about the Clintons that provides a framework for everything that happens to them, and the narrative is: they think the rules don’t apply to them,” Carroll said.
For a candidate who is still leading in the race for the nomination by a wide margin, Clinton’s frustration does not play well and it bodes poorly for her campaign, Whalen said.
“She’s getting awfully testy, and that’s not a good sign given how early it is.”
Media reports indicate that even Clinton’s allies are questioning her handling of the email issue, and some are concerned it could be a fatal flaw for her candidacy that leaves the party without any viable options for the general election.
“I get nervous about seeing stories with these words together—FBI, Clinton, criminal investigation,” an unnamed Democratic operative told Politico.
“The combination of messy facts, messy campaign operation and an awkward candidate reading terrible lines or worse jokes from a prompter is very scary,” one Democratic operative told the Washington Post’s Chris Clizza.
In a column titled “Maybe Hillary Clinton just isn’t a very good candidate,” Clizza also quoted another party operative as saying, “Hillary has Bill’s baggage and now her own as secretary of state—without Bill’s personality, eloquence or warmth.”
A new CNN/ORC poll suggests an increasing number of Democratic voters have reservations about Clinton as well.
47% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning respondents said they support Clinton, a drop of 9 points from last month. 29% backed Bernie Sanders, up 10 points from July, and 14% picked Vice President Joe Biden, who has not announced whether he will run. The poll also shows that a majority of Democrats want Biden in the race.
Among all voters, Clinton’s unfavorability rose to 53%, the highest since 2001. In a general election match-up with Republican candidates, Clinton leads Donald Trump and Scott Walker by 6 points, Jeb Bush by 9 and Carly Fiorina by 10.
Schmidt said when Clinton’s numbers fall below 50% with Democrats, as this poll indicates, “the red lights start going off in her campaign organization.”
Although the numbers should raise concern for Clinton, Whalen said Democrats are still in a strong position for the general election because they lead with women, Latinos and African-Americans. Republicans, and particularly Trump, could have trouble appealing to those demographics regardless of who the Democratic nominee is.
Carroll pointed to another significant finding in the poll, that 56% of voters now say Clinton did something wrong by using a private email server as secretary of state, including a majority of independents.
It is not too late for Biden, or even Gore, to get in the race, the experts said, but they saw few other potential candidates in the Democratic Party.
“It’s kind of shocking Democrats don’t have a deeper bench…It’s kind of like the golden oldies tour,” Whalen said.
“A lot of Democrats are getting very skittish,” Schmidt said, with fears that Clinton’s campaign will fall apart like it did in 2008 without a strong alternative like Barack Obama waiting in the wings.
“If there is a catastrophic crash, someone needs to be there to pick up and take flight.”
Carroll said the biggest challenge for Biden jumping into the race now is that so many of the party’s big donors have already thrown financial support behind Clinton.
“There’s not a lot of fish out there to reel in for him…but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.”
With her support slipping, Carroll questioned the strategy behind the Clinton campaign’s new ad.
“I find the ad sort of equally tin-eared as her responses in the press conference,” he said.
Going after the ultra-rich when Clinton herself is very wealthy—the Daily Mail Wednesday highlighted the “$100,000-a-week Hamptons home” where she plans to vacation this month—could be problematic, according to Carroll. She may be seen as criticizing affluent people for acting like the rules do not apply to them, when that is exactly what voters believe she did with her private email server.
Schmidt had not seen the new ad, but he said the idea of playing up the theme of middle class insecurities is not a bad one.
“She needs to focus on those and hammer away on those,” he said, and just hope concerns about her emails and her trustworthiness subside in the coming months.
Democrats still seem to expect Clinton to be the party’s nominee, but Carroll said another candidate could catch fire with voters quickly like Obama did in 2008, especially if Clinton’s trust issues do continue to dog her.
“This has potential to be some huge acid flashback for Hillary Clinton where she goes from inevitable to the sidelines.”
Updated: Wed, Aug 19 2015, 09:16 PM | Keith Lane