Hillary Clinton

The former secretary of state visits key states in her quest to become the Democratic nominee for president.

By Anne Gearan and Dan Balz
May 15, 2016 at 7:41 PM

Hillary Clinton’s declining personal image, ongoing battle to break free of the challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders and struggle to adapt to an anti-establishment mood among voters this year have become caution signs for her campaign and the focus of new efforts to fortify her position as she prepares for a bruising general election.

More than a dozen Clinton ­allies identified weaknesses in her candidacy that may erode her prospects of defeating Donald Trump, including poor showings with young women, untrustworthiness, unlikability and a lackluster style on the stump. Supporters also worry that she is a conventional candidate in an unconventional election in which voters clearly favor renegades.

“I bring it down to one thing and one thing only, and that is likability,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who has conducted a series of focus groups for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

To counter these challenges, Clinton is relying primarily on the prospect that her likely Republican opponent’s weaknesses are even greater. But advisers also are working to soften her stiff public image by highlighting her compassion and to combat perceptions about trustworthiness and authenticity by playing up her problem-solving abilities.

“Hillary Clinton is in a stronger position than Donald Trump, but it will be competitive,” said Joel Benenson, Clinton’s senior strategist and pollster. “All these races are.”
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None of these Democrats said they expected Clinton to lose — but many said she could. For the most part, it is her qualities as a candidate that keep her allies up at night, not her fitness to be president, which they categorically do not question. They also lament how exposed these flaws have become during a long primary contest against Sanders, who has profited from suspicion and dislike of Clinton among ranks she now must win over.

Although Clinton has never trailed Sanders in the delegate count and is all but assured of securing the nomination in June, she is widely expected to lose more Democratic primaries this month, which could amplify her weaknesses.

When Democrats assess Clinton, they tend to zero in on her communication skills: She is scripted and thin-skinned, they say. And with a sigh, they acknowledge the persistent feeling among a lot of Americans that they just don’t like her. Polls long have shown that many voters do not trust Clinton and that a majority view her unfavorably.

Hart said being seen as likable is “about the lowest bar” for a candidate, and yet Clinton has lower likability numbers today than she did when the campaign began.

It is cold comfort that Trump’s are worse, several Democrats said.

Among other potential problems identified by supporters: Clinton’s unpopularity with white men, questions about whether her family philanthropic foundation helped donors and friends, and lingering clouds from her tenure at the State Department, including her private email system, the Benghazi attacks in which four Americans were killed and her support for military intervention in Libya.
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