Conflicting polls on Clinton; What gives?

Updated 4:10 PM EDT, Wed May 6, 2015
(CNN) —  

Two respected polls released recently suggest polar opposite storylines about Hillary Clinton.

One suggests she’s weathered recent controversy over her use of private email as secretary of state, and is even beginning to rebound. Another suggests her ratings have suffered as a result.

What gives?

The CBS News/New York Times poll and the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll appear to tell deeply diverging stories, but there are some commonalities in the data that reveal the real story.

Take Clinton’s favorability rating. The CBS/New York Times poll finds the public about evenly split on the former first lady, with 35% holding a favorable view, 36% unfavorable and 28% in the middle. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds almost exactly the same thing: an evenly divided public, with 42% having a positive view and the same share a negative one, and 14% in the middle. Aside from the size of the neutral response, not much difference there.

Likewise, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 50% rated Clinton as not “honest and straightforward,” while CBS and The New York Times pegged the number at 45%. Just a slight difference in statistical terms.

So why the dueling headlines?

The differences are more in the point of comparison than anything in the current findings.

In their March polls, these two had divergent results on Clinton’s favorability rating. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll – which was conducted in early March just as the email controversy was emerging and before she responded to the story in a press conference at the U.N. – found views of Clinton tipping positive, 44% to 36% negative, with 19% neutral. Later in the month, once the story had some time to simmer, the CBS News poll found her underwater, with 37% holding an unfavorable opinion and 26% favorable.

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Essentially, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal analysis is comparing Clinton’s ratings now to those just before the story broke, while the CBS/New York Times poll is looking at Clinton’s ratings now compared to the controversy’s immediate aftermath.

It’s the same thing with both polls’ findings on perceptions of Clinton’s honesty. The CBS/New York Times poll is again looking back to that late-March CBS News finding, after several weeks of questions about why she used a private email server, while the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is comparing views of her honesty now to results from a poll conducted last year.

The two different starting points yield very different narratives.

Big picture, polling on Clinton yields one overarching finding: As the 2016 campaign gets underway, she’s being viewed as a political figure once again, which is being reflected in her tempered numbers compared to a few years ago when she was a very popular secretary of state. And this much is true in both polls: A significant share of Americans have an unfavorable view of Hillary Clinton, and a sizable number have questions about her honesty.

But remember when reading poll analyses, change over time in any individual poll is completely dependent on when the questions were last asked.