It is well known by now that, if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off in the general election, they will easily be the two most disfavored candidates in recent electoral history. Answers abound for why that is, but I want to introduce a theory here that might account for some part of Clinton’s “strongly unfavorable” ratings. Of course, because so many people have their own strong feelings about Clinton, I suppose I am playing with fire here. But it is not my intent to pass judgment on the substantive reasons many people offer for disliking or distrusting Clinton, nor is it my intent to present this theory in order to deflect or diminish the undeniable misogyny that is at the root of some other people’s distaste for Clinton.
That said, I think there is a dimension of Clinton’s political career which has not received the attention it deserves and that is, I would argue, a contributing or aggravating factor in producing the sharply unfavorable view many Americans have of Clinton. And that is, very simply, that we do not associate Clinton strongly with any particular state or region. She is the former Senator from New York, but was widely seen then as a “carpetbagger.” She was First Lady of Arkansas, but again, was never truly embraced as a native and never seemed inclined to seek that status. She grew up in Illinois, went to college in Massachusetts and law school in Connecticut. Where, then, do we “place” her?
First we might ask whether “placing” Clinton—or any other political candidate—is important. I think there are two worthwhile answers to that question which we might pursue. One is to ask whether there are other analogous major candidates for President in recent electoral history, candidates without a strong regional or even local identity. This is a rather vexed question, because regionalism has often been a double-edged issue, with Michael Dukakis and John Kerry’s “New England liberal” image acting as a sort of political albatross.
But even as region can work against a candidate, I think it is difficult to find a successful contender for the Presidency (i.e., one who either captured a major party nomination or sustained a prolonged campaign for their party’s nomination for a significant amount of time) who lacked this credential. Some candidates, it is true, had multiple regional identifications: they grew up in one place, but made their names in a second region. Barack Obama, for instance, had just as itinerant a life as Clinton, if not more so, and strategically emphasized his multiple origins—including in his star-making 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote. But nearly all candidates—all that I can think of—deliberately emphasized one regional identity over any others. Obama was ultimately “from” Chicago, and at times coupled this with his mother’s Kansan heritage to burnish his Midwesternness.
The reasons for this very deliberate regional self-identification are not hard to fathom. The first words of Obama’s 2004 speech were: “On behalf of the great state of Illinois, crossroads of a nation, land of Lincoln, let me express my deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing this convention.” Nearly all viable candidates for President are and have been for many decades representatives of specific states, serving in Congress or as a state’s executive. The few exceptions are ordinarily military figures and, if you remember the very short Presidential campaign of Wesley Clark, they haven’t been too successful of late.
And here’s where I think the second answer to the question of why “placing” Clinton is important comes through. What does this act of regional identification offer a candidate? Two things, I think. First, it provides a level of insulation from the generally abysmal views many voters have of Washington—a perspective shared on both the right (“Big Government”) and the left (“Washington Rules” or the “Washington consensus”). Secondly, representing a state in some way provides the candidate with an argument (often implicit) that they have already been vetted and accepted by voters.
So, although Clinton has actually been vetted and accepted in this way, the fact that she represented New York makes all the difference. For not only do many Americans look askance at “New York values” but its cosmopolitan character allowed Clinton to represent it in the Senate without ever, I think it is fair to say, attempting to become a New Yorker in the way that Ed Koch or the Cuomos or Donald Trump have been. Being a Senator rather than a governor also matters—things may have been different had Clinton spent a term or two in Albany rather than D.C.
For D.C. is where most people would “place” Clinton if they are to pin a location on her at all, and what is remarkable is how little she seems to fight that association. If she is the nominee, perhaps there will be, at the convention, video montages that root her in her Illinois girlhood. Perhaps some of her surrogates on the campaign trail will leverage their regional identities on her behalf. But up to now she has not seemed concerned that this regional dissociation may have hurt her. And that, I think, is unusual even if it has largely gone unnoticed.