by Scott Winship
Mark Schmitt recently took issue with this op-ed by James Carville and Mark Penn asserting Hillary Clinton’s electability in the 2008 presidential election. Criticizing them for their lack of any empirical case, Mark cites approvingly the Strategist’s philosophy of “facts, not factions”. Matt Yglesias followed with a piece examining Clinton’s performance in New York relative to Chuck Schumer, Al Gore, and John Kerry in arguing that she would be a weak candidate. Now Garance Franke-Ruta has linked to a new Gallup poll that sheds additional light on this question. So let’s look at some facts.
While Garance’s post revolves around the views of Democrats toward Senator Clinton, what really matters for the electability question is how independents view her. According to a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 48 percent of indies have a favorable opinion of her, while 46 percent view her unfavorably. (The rest are unsure.) This is remarkably close to John Kerry’s 49-48 margin among independents in the 2004 election. So an initial conclusion is that with Clinton heading the Democratic ticket, we will be dealing with another nail-biter in 2008. (Of course, much depends on the Republican ticket.)
On the other hand, Clinton’s favorability among Republicans – 26 percent – is significantly larger than Kerry’s performance among Republicans (a whopping 6 percent). Presumably she would end up getting substantially less than a quarter of the Republican vote in 2008, but it may be that she can attract enough Republican women to improve on Kerry’s performance.
That said, when respondents get the chance to say they are undecided as to Clinton’s favorability, just 11 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of independents are favorable toward her while 62 percent and 37 percent view her unfavorably. So, much of her support is tenuous.
That means a big question is whether Clinton’s popularity would go up or down over the course of a primary and general election campaign. Of course there is the possibility that many independents and Republicans who view her favorably will ultimately decide they do not want to relive the battle between the Clintons and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Many of them may not approve of having Bill Clinton back in the White House, particularly as First Gentleman.
I suspect, however, that Republicans would shy away from the sorts of attacks unleashed against the Clintons in the 1990s. One has to believe that the losses they sustained in the 1998 elections taught them that it is possible to go too far. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have fluctuated between 44 and 54 percent since the start of Bill’s second term…except during and after the Lewinsky scandal, when they jumped 8 points in the first days that it broke and remained at 59 percent through mid-1999 (when she revealed she was considering a Senate run). If the Republican nominee has had an extramarital affair, alluding to the Clintons’ marital dramas will prove risky too.
No, they will have plenty to work with without having to prime swing voters to remember the various Clinton scandals. For one, there is HillaryCare. With health care as a major campaign issue in 2008, I suspect that the Republicans would rather face Clinton than other Democrats (who will have their own health care plans and no baggage from 1994). But the Gallup poll Garance links to reveals a second promising front for Republicans.
Among independents, the most common reason given for disliking Clinton was, “Wavers too much on issues to her advantage/wishy-washy.” If the campaign began today, she would go into it with 12 percent of independents believing she’s Clintonesque and a flip-flopper. These are basically the same characterological flaws that Republicans used effectively in the past four Presidential elections. Twelve percent may not seem that high, but keep in mind that this is before the GOP slime machine kicks in. You can bet the 527 groups will be out in full force, if not Rove or his protégés.
Furthermore, Clinton will face strong pressure in the primaries to change her Iraq position and to move to the left generally. As Howard Dean’s candidacy did to Kerry, Russ Feingold’s will set Clinton up to be more effectively portrayed as a flip-flopper in the general election. Indeed, it may be worse for Clinton. She will have much more successfully portrayed herself as moderate going into the primaries (before she zigs) than Kerry did, and because the netroots are feeling far less accomodationist today than in 2003 (at least on Iraq), she will have at least as far to zag in the general election.
So is Clinton electable? Sure. Is it likely she’d be elected? Much less clear. The evidence above gives reason to think that with Clinton as the nominee, 2008 could be the third carbon-copy presidential election in a row for Democrats, which would leave them agonizingly short of victory again. But with the current 50/50 Nation, it’s impossible to say with much confidence what would actually happen.
Update: Regarding Mark’s main question as to whether Clinton is likely to attract strong support from women in general and married and non-Democratic women specifically, I’ve tabulated some evidence from the 2004 National Election Study. Women, but not men, rated Clinton higher than they did Kerry on a “thermometer” scale where 0 equals very cool feelings and 100 equals extreme warmth. The average for Clinton was 59, versus 54 for Kerry. Men rated both between 50 and 51. So Carville and Penn seem correct here. On the other hand, Clinton’s boost among married women was no larger than her boost among married men, and much smaller than among single women. Married women rated Clinton 53 and Kerry 50, compared with 48 and 46 for married men and 66 and 59 for single women. Among Republican women, there was no boost, and she was barely any more popular than among Republican men. The average score for Clinton was 31, compared with 32 for Kerry. The figures for Democratic women were 80 and 73; for Republican men, 28 and 29. Finally, Clinton averaged 63 among independent women, while Kerry averaged just 55. Among independent men, on the other hand, she averaged 52 to Kerry’s 54. So while there’s some evidence a Clinton presidency would energize independent women (including married independent women, which I don’t show here), there’s little to indicate that it would convert other married women or Republican women. Furthermore, these numbers would probably fall over the course of a campaign, given GOP smear tactics.
by Scott Winship