The most surprising revelation in recent presidential polling is not that Donald Trump has low favorability in key states — a welcome indicator of national sanity — but rather that Hillary Clinton's numbers are almost as bad. Put another way: A vacuous, gaffe-prone, xenophobic, conspiracy-minded reality television star whose nomination, by most accounts, would destroy the GOP has about the same approval ratings in Colorado and Iowa as the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination.
A recognition begins to dawn: Democrats may be coronating a wounded queen.
Horse-race polling conducted early in a presidential contest means very little, as President Fred Thompson and President Howard Dean can attest. But while early polls are not predictive of outcomes, they can be indicative of weaknesses. In a recent CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent of adults did not consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. According to an AP-Gfk poll, only 31 percent of likely voters think the word "honest" describes Clinton well. And in a recent Quinnipiac poll of key states, 59 percent of Iowa voters, 55 percent of Virginia voters and 62 percent of Colorado voters did not believe that Clinton is honest and trustworthy.
Clinton's response? "People should, and do, trust me." A statement not particularly worthy of trust.
One of the lively debates among conservatives over the last several months has been: Is Clinton a strong candidate or a weak one? I have been on the "strong" side. She is knowledgeable, tough, experienced and certainly imaginable as president. She has almost managed the remarkable achievement of clearing the Democratic field through a perception of her own inevitability and a reputation for remembering disloyalty.
But arguments on the "weak" side are getting stronger. Since her video announcement in April, perceptions of Clinton's character and leadership have worsened — which is not really the purpose of a campaign. Her vulnerability on the populist left — Sen. Bernie Sanders is supported by a majority of white Democratic liberals — has shifted Clinton's candidacy decisively to the left. And the candidate looks as comfortable in this overcorrection as Mitt Romney did in his "severely conservative" phase.
And then there are the e-mails — at least the ones that haven't been erased at her own discretion. Congressional investigations and referrals to the Justice Department "related to the potential compromise of classified information" will continue to be untieable loose ends. Clinton will find it impossible to contend she has nothing to hide while hiding her personal server from forensic scrutiny. (One imagines it is stored somewhere in the warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark.")
Clinton asserts she has violated no rules or laws. This brings back so many memories. During the Clinton era, rules were not generally violated; they were skirted, reinterpreted, navigated, twisted, kneaded and massaged. Americans always cut Bill Clinton slack, giving him the benefit of many doubts. Hillary Clinton — lacking most of her husband's preternatural political skills — may not have the same luxury.
Senior Democrats are seeing what the rest of us see — a Clinton campaign that is burning money and losing ground. At what point do party leaders begin a panicked search for alternatives? Not yet. But when? "When public sentiment consistently falls in this [polling] category," a former Democratic official told me. "When people say enough is enough and can't deal with the Clinton psychodrama anymore. They [both Clintons] feel this is the normal condition."
This former official thinks that Clinton has the month of August to right her listing campaign. If that doesn't happen, Vice President Joe Biden's colorful trial balloon may rise. And when a candidate's main argument is inevitability — as Clinton's is — doubts are a crack in the ice that quickly spreads.
I'll admit, I am still not convinced that Clinton is a weak candidate, at least for her party's nomination. Biden, for all his dizzy charm, is less imaginable as president than Clinton. Also, she has a wicked inside political game. Nearly half of the Democratic congressional delegation has endorsed her. Her campaign has effectively courted the key Democratic interest groups. And, harder to quantify, Clinton has generated a network of loyalty by being a thoughtful, caring person in private. As we saw in 2008, she is most attractive as a politician when she is most vulnerable.
If adversity reveals a different side to Clinton — currently masked by the candidate's own wooden style — it could strengthen her candidacy. This challenge, while not expected so early, was inevitable. The test is either useful, or politically fatal.
Michael Gerson is at email@example.com. His column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.