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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Down Ballot

Aside from each candidate’s “electibility” as president, a related issue affecting Democratic presidential candidates for 2008 is how each would affect “down-ballot” races for Congress, governorships, and so on. At The New Republic today, Tom Schaller takes on the strong if under-documented belief that Hillary Clinton would be a “down-ballot” disaster for Democrats, particularly in red states or red regions.
As Schaller notes, this belief appears to be based mainly on polls that persistently show HRC with high “negatives,” reinforced by anecdotal evidence (which is everywhere) of the amazing, pathological intensity with which many conservatives hate her.

[W]hile Americans view Clinton about as favorably as they do her two chief rivals, Democrats think she is a better leader, Republicans think she’d make a worse leader, and a greater share of voters who do not approve of her actually disapprove of her–which sounds like a redundancy, but is not when you realize that many voters have neither a favorable nor unfavorable view of Obama or Edwards. If either of them wins the nomination, however, don’t doubt for a second that the Republican machine can’t or won’t ratchet up their negatives later.
Still, is there something unique about Clinton that could put other 2008 Democratic candidates at risk? The strongest claim to that is she’s an uncommonly unifying figure–for Republicans and the right. So while the intensity of Clinton hatred may not multiply a voter’s vote, it could motivate citizens to engage in other ways, such as donating to Republican candidates, walking precincts, or persuading their friends and co-workers to vote against Clinton and other Democrats.

Negative as well as positive enthusiasm towards candidates is often overrated, since “bonus votes” are not rewarded for the intensity of voter preferences. And as Schaller notes, Obama-hatred or Edwards-hatred might well emerge on the Right if either of those men won the nomination. But the anecdotal case you often hear about Clinton is that she is polarizing in an unbalanced way: her nomination would strongly motivate conservatives who think she’s a dedicated socialist and one-worlder, while discouraging progressives who think she’s a warmongering corporate puppet. (You even hear the reverse argument made about Edwards, i.e., that he’s usefully perceived by Republicans and independents as more “centrist” than he actually is).
Interesting as they are, such theories about HRC’s effect on the electorate would have more power if there was any objective evidence for them. So far, polls testing various Democratic candidates against Republican rivals in specific states (mainly those conducted by SurveyUSA) show her doing as well as or better than Obama and Edwards in most states, and doing quite well in red and purple states. To be a “drag” on the ticket down-ballot in a lot of states, you have to actually lose them, and lose them badly. To put it most simply, it’s hard to get too obsessed about the down-ballot “damage” that might be inflicted by a candidate who’s currently running four points ahead of Rudy Giuliani in Kentucky.

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