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Hillary Clinton’s Popularity Has Fluctuated During Decades in Public Eye

Hillary Clinton Makes It Official 2:58

Most people who decide to run for president begin with the challenge of introducing themselves to voters who have either never heard their names or have only the vaguest idea what to think of them.

Hillary Clinton does not have that problem.

Unlike her potential rivals in 2016 — Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, to name a few — the former secretary of state and first lady has essentially universal name recognition. (In our latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a whopping 1 percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about her to have an opinion.)

Not only has Clinton been a public figure for more than 20 years, but she's also been a central character in some of the country's most riveting dramas in the last quarter-century: a sex scandal detailed in cringe-worthy public fashion, an effort to impeach the leader of the free world and a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.

And through all of that, there have been pollsters keeping track of exactly what the American people were saying about their first lady-turned lawmaker-turned candidate-turned Madame Secretary.

A look back through 22 years of NBC News/ Wall Street Journal polls reveals that Clinton has enjoyed two major spikes in popularity — at two very different times in her life — and she's struggled to stay popular when she's on the campaign trail.

A White House rollercoaster

Like most first ladies, Hillary Clinton came into the White House as a relatively well-liked presidential spouse. Just 16 percent of Americans said they had a negative view of her, and 57 percent gave her a thumbs up. But within six months, her positive rating had dropped by double digits as she managed her unprecedented role as the head of the president's health care task force. As the Whitewater scandal raged, her popularity dropped abruptly, and she wallowed "underwater" (more unpopular than popular) for much of 1996.

She wouldn't return to her early days of warm approval ratings until her marriage's rockiest public moments.

On Jan. 26, 1998, Bill Clinton addressed swirling rumors of his affair with a White House intern, uttering the infamous line "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll just weeks later, Hillary Clinton's net positive rating jumped 10 points. By October of that year, when the salacious details of Bill Clinton's dalliances with Lewinsky were made public, her popularity hit its highest point since her first month in the White House, at 56 percent positive and just 28 percent negative. The public remained sympathetic to her as her husband battled congressional Republicans over articles of impeachment.

Clinton 2016 Campaign Will Be 'Up Close and Personal' 2:33

The Senate years and the 2008 squiggle

One time that Hillary Clinton isn't particularly popular is when she's running for office.

Her favorability ratings drifted back toward average as Bill Clinton's presidency lumbered to a close, and by the time she was in the midst of her New York Senate run, she barely cracked the 40 percent mark. She enjoyed a bump after her win and subsequent swearing-in, but she plummeted again by March 2001 after the Clinton administration's controversial pardon of mega-donor Mark Rich. (Bill Clinton's favorable rating also dropped by double digits at the same time.)

During her relatively quiet years in the Senate, the public's view of her remained relatively stable — an unusual period of calm for a political figure used to yo-yoing public approval. But as her presidential campaign geared up, the cardiograph-like undulations began anew. And by March 2008, as she painfully prolonged the Democratic primary despite Barack Obama's clear path to the nomination, the numbers betrayed the nation's dwindling patience as well as she hit her lowest popularity rating in five years (38 percent) and neared the depths of her Whitewater doldrums. She wouldn't break 50 percent again until after the 2008 election.

Love for the Secretary

Unlike the humiliation of l'Affaire Lewinsky, Clinton's next moment in the sun of public approval came at a time of professional triumph — and it lasted for nearly four years.

As the newly minted secretary of state, Clinton's public approval again leaped, reaching an all-time peak at 59 percent positive/22 percent negative in February 2009. And that glow lingered throughout her time in Foggy Bottom, dropping only after her departure from the job in spring 2013.

It's worth noting that Clinton, for all the talk of her divisiveness as an American political figure, remains relatively popular today.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 44 percent of respondents gave her a thumbs up, while 36 percent disagreed.

Those numbers may seem middling, but they surpassed every other individual polled in March except for her husband and the immaculately popular Pope Francis.

Trailing her on the likability front were: Elizabeth Warren, Janet Yellen, Barack Obama, Scott Walker and George W. Bush.

Last on the list? The best-funded Republican who hopes to be her main rival: Jeb Bush.

Jeb Bush Hits Clinton In New Video 0:26