CHICAGO — Hillary Clinton hasn’t decided whether she’ll run for president in 2016, a status that doesn’t matter to the brewing class of potential Republican candidates already running against her.
And, in the pre-campaign posturing, her prospective opponents are having some impact. Clinton’s political standing is declining after months of criticism for her handling of a terrorist attack last September that left four Americans dead in Libya, a Bloomberg National Poll shows.
The former U.S. secretary of state’s favorability rating of 58 percent dropped 12 percentage points since December, when she recorded her top score in the survey at 70 percent. The proportion of Americans who say they view her very unfavorably has also doubled during that period, to 22 percent from 11 percent.
“The Clintons have been favorite targets of the Republican right for a very, very long time, but it is also because of her presumed front-runner status,” said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., speaking of the former secretary of state and her husband, former President Bill Clinton. “In some ways, she’s even more of a target” than President Barack Obama.
Clinton, 65, also is a “great foil for fundraising and for generating response from the base,” Redlawsk said, adding that it’s less important for her to respond to the attacks than would typically be the case because opinions about her are largely solidified. Only 5 percent of Americans don’t know enough about Clinton to offer an opinion about her, according to the poll.
She still would be a contender if she enters the race. Four in 10 Americans say they’d definitely or probably vote for her if she became the Democratic nominee, while a third say they definitely wouldn’t.
“We just need someone who can make up their minds and stick with it and she seems to be that type of a person,” said poll participant Bettie Spesard, 74, a factory worker from Paris, Ill., and a self-described Democrat who wants to vote for Clinton after backing Republicans in the past two elections.
Clinton’s support is only slightly stronger among women, a group in which 43 percent say they would definitely or probably vote for her.
Poll participant Susan Bettis Smith, 57, a therapist from Portland, Ore., said she personally connects with Clinton.
“I appreciate her and admire her,” she said. “I would like to see what she can do.”
Three-quarters of Democrats back her, as do 33 percent of independent voters.
“This poll conjures up a lot of deja vu,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., in a reference to the 2008 presidential primary that began with Clinton rated as the top contender in a field that included Obama, then a senator from Illinois.
“Hillary Clinton is thought to be invincible, her nomination inevitable. That’s familiar. So is the growing number expressing negative opinions, reminding us of a time when a significant segment of the population despised her,” said Selzer, whose company conducted the survey.
The May 31-June 3 poll of 1,002 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Among potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates tested, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the only one who posted numbers close to Clinton’s. He’s viewed favorably by 50 percent of Americans and unfavorably by 16 percent.
The governor’s well-publicized role in the wake of Hurricane Sandy also makes him the only Republican with a national profile. In June 2011, 57 percent of Americans didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion; today, just 34 percent of the poll respondents say that.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is viewed favorably by 32 percent, not much above the 27 percent who view him unfavorably. Forty-one percent have no opinion of him. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has a net favorable rating of 32 percent and an unfavorable rating of 22 percent, with 46 percent unsure about how they view him.
Paul, who is contemplating a presidential bid, criticized Clinton during his first high-profile appearance as a potential 2016 candidate in Iowa, the state that traditionally hosts the first primary-season voting.
Like his fellow Republicans, Paul accused her of failing to use her authority as secretary of state to boost security in Benghazi, Libya, before the Sept. 11, 2012 attack.
“It was inexcusable, it was a dereliction of duty, and it should preclude her from holding higher office,” he said at a May 10 fundraiser in Cedar Rapids.
Rubio has said questions remain about Clinton’s role “in the administration’s efforts to portray the attack as the result of a spontaneous demonstration, despite abundant evidence to the contrary and efforts by one of her top lieutenants to intimidate those who were asking the right questions.”
Last month, the National Republican Congressional Committee used Clinton and Benghazi in a fundraising appeal and the American Crossroads super-political action committee, one founded in part by former George W. Bush political strategist Karl Rove, created an online video highlighting her involvement.
A plurality of those in the poll — 47 percent — said they disapprove of how Clinton handled the situation in Benghazi, while roughly a third — 34 percent — said they approve. About 1 in 5 said they aren’t sure.
“You go on the information you have, and I believe she acted in good faith,” said poll participant Gerry Lagro, 66, a software salesman and independent voter from Milford, N.H. “They didn’t have good intelligence and she was not head of the intelligence agencies.”
Lagro called continued congressional investigations into the incident a “waste of taxpayer’s money to continue to beat this horse,” something he said Republicans are doing to “keep a negative spotlight on a potential candidate.”
Poll participant Ken Lockwood, 51, an independent voter and engineering manager from Marysville, Mich., said he definitely wouldn’t vote for Clinton.
“I feel she is a criminal and has lied to the people of the United States,” said Lockwood, who said he’s most troubled by her handling of Benghazi. “Her and her husband need to go quietly into retirement.”
Since leaving the state department, Clinton has mostly kept a low profile, other than delivering a few public speeches and releasing a video in March in which for the first time she announced support for same-sex marriage.
Even so, she’s done just enough in the political arena to keep potential donors and supporters intrigued by the historic potential of backing a candidate who could become the first woman president. She’s attended fundraisers for Democratic candidates and her supporters formed a super-PAC to back a presidential bid, a move Clinton didn’t block.