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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Who’s More Electable?

(NOTE: As explained in the previous post, this is a guest item from Jonathan Krasno, Associate Professor of Political Science at Binghamton University).
With John McCain the all-but-certain Republican nominee, the obvious question emerges: which Democrat is likeliest to beat him? This, of course, is a purely hypothetical question. John Kerry won the Democratic nomination in 2004 in large part because of the perception that he was the strongest candidate against George Bush. He lost, but we have no way of knowing whether John Edwards or Howard Dean would have done better. The same is true of many of the judgments that people make of candidates. We’ll never know whether Hillary Clinton would be a better president than Barack Obama, whether his foreign policy would work better than hers, and so on. The best we can do make an informed guess. On the question of electability, my guess without question is Obama.
The case for Obama as the strongest candidate comes from simple electoral math. The 30+ primaries and caucuses to date, plus the polls and the pattern of endorsements from red-state Democrats, show that he has more appeal to independents, to a handful of Republicans, and to casual Democrats than does Clinton. Clinton’s support is largely concentrated in core Democrats, the sort most likely to vote in primaries and the reason why she remains in serious contention despite a string of loses. Obama is almost certainly right to claim that he would be more likely to win over Clinton’s voters in the fall than she would be to win over his. Although widely interpreted as a reference to blacks, it is independent and Republican supporters who are most out of her reach. In short, Obama begins with a larger pool of potential supporters, one that encompasses the core Democrats currently on Clinton’s side and extends past them.
The key word in that last sentence is “potential.” The main knock against Obama as a candidate – and the main argument for Clinton – involves his ability to withstand the withering attack to come. Obama has enjoyed a charmed political life, with fawning press and weak Republican opposition. Can he maintain his exalted status a fresh, new voice (for change!) once the campaign really begins? The Clintons, after all, knocked him off his stride for several weeks after Iowa with some hardball tactics, although by South Carolina he managed to turn those tactics against them.
Once the campaign begins, the argument goes, Clinton is better prepared. She has been in the national spotlight since 1992, so she knows what the counterattack will be like and what she has to do to get beyond it. She won’t, like Kerry or Michael Dukakis, be surprised by an attack and lose an early lead. She is not invested in a holier-than-thou image, so she can throw some pretty sharp elbows and do whatever is necessary to win, etc. Furthermore, the strong economy of the Clinton years supposedly gives her a solid claim as the candidate best equipped to deal with recession, especially versus McCain.
All of that would be more convincing if Clinton were a proven vote-getter or a proven campaigner. She ran five points behind Al Gore in New York in 2000, two points behind Elliot Spitzer in 2006. (Her husband, his recent missteps notwithstanding, who is a better politician than she is, never managed to win a majority of votes nationwide.) I live in upstate New York and can confirm that whatever Clinton hatred that remains here is muted, proving that with time Clinton can win over her critics. She does not have the time to lavish attention on the whole country as she has lavished it on New York, to get people who discount her to pay attention. More important, against the toughest political opponent of her career in Obama, she has squandered a huge lead and a dizzying array of advantages. If Obama has run a better campaign for the nomination (aimed at appealing to people who will be swing voters in the general) why should Clinton be seen as the stronger candidate in the fall? It is certainly hard to discount his superior rhetorical skills and the organizational success of his campaign.
Nor does Clinton’s ability to match up against McCain on an array of issues seem like a big deal. One of the things that the exit polls have consistently shown is that Clinton and McCain, arguably the two biggest hawks on each side, have done better than their opponents with voters who favor a quick withdrawal from Iraq. What that suggests, of course, is that voters look at a variety of things besides issues. In Obama’s case it is his uplifting message of hope and change; in McCain’s it is his reputation for honesty. Against either one, Clinton’s mastery of the details of government seems wonkish and uninspired. Given the choice between going into the general election with the master of the economy or the charismatic apostle of change, I would opt for the generic message of changing the friendless status quo.
In other words, the argument for Obama is most electable is based on breadth of his appeal, while Clinton is favored for her supposed mastery of the process of running against Republicans. Of the two, the first seems more tangible and more valuable to me. The potential to bring more Democrats to the polls (especially young ones who could help the party in the future), the potential to win more independents and perhaps more than a sliver of Republicans, the potential to keep the Republicans in disarray rather than healing their divisions for them by nominating an opponent who instantly unites them – all these make Obama the stronger candidate. Obama will be savagely attacked, pulled off his pedestal (along with McCain), and possibly even fatally wounded in the process. But will he end up any more disliked or divisive than is Clinton already? Probably not. The campaign against her is, after all, in the midst of its second decade. It will cost the Republicans tens of millions to try to demonize Obama as effectively as they have demonized Clinton, and there is no certainty they’ll succeed.
One of the common observations about Obama is that he is a high risk, high reward candidate, while Clinton represents a surer thing. The risk is that, with his lack of exposure on the national stage, the bottom could fall out; the reward is that Obama fulfills his potential as a transformational candidate. I do not see him doing any worse than Clinton’s worst. But with the stars aligned for a Democratic victory in November, Democrats can afford to think big. Clinton can win a narrow victory, but only Obama can deliver a landslide.

13 comments on “Who’s More Electable?

  1. pearlsofwisdom on

    It is significant that Hillary Clinton won important states like California and New York, and even Massachusetts despite Kennedy’s endorsement. On the other hand, much of Obama’s support is coming from blanket voting by the black community and young voters. Obama may have made inroads into the white vote, but is it significant enough to suggest that he could deliver a landslide for the Democrats? He carried red states in the South because of the heavy black population which in my mind inflates the appearance of his popularity. When one considers that Democrats are only being represented in these primaries…at least, supposedly so even though there have been many claims that Republicans are crossing over to vote for Obama for unspecified reasons, his popularity comes into question. All of this will be cleared up soon in the March 4th votes. If Hillary loses Texas and Ohio, it will become evident that she is not the best candidate for the Democrats. Until then it is premature to think that Obama enjoys wide and overwhelming popularity. Considering that all groups will be voting in the general election, it is debatable whether Democratic primary voting patterns will translate into general election results because the Democratic primaries do not represent the whole of America.

  2. links on

    My point Ed, is that for many white working class voters their feelings on the war may not be the same as their feelings on “surrender” once McCain polarizes the race that way. McCain won’t win many anti-war activists that way, but he may very well pull enough white working class votes in Ohio away from Obama to swing the election. I can see Iowa in play (but Iowa really isn’t a red state). Colorado and Virginia (two strong military states) are long shots at best for Democrats with McCain as the Republican nominee.

  3. Fast Pete on

    Readers might wish to consider the poster’s final two paras, blaming the Clintons for their own character assassination; and then this in the NY Times:

      Electability (a concept invoked often) is a code word that masks the fact that the result of such reasoning is to cede the political power to the ranters. Carolyn Kay (456) makes the point when she observes that if you vote against Clinton because you fear the virulence of her most vocal enemies, “you have allowed the right-wing hatemongers to decide who our candidate will be.” Underlying this surrender of the franchise to those least qualified to exercise it is the complaint (rarely overtly stated) that the Clintons have had the bad taste to undergo the assassination of their characters in public and have thereby made us its unwilling spectators. This is of course the old ploy of blaming the victim, and Ava Mae Lewis (16) is at least explicit about it. After deploring the “wild accusations” and “rabid hate”, she declares herself “disappointed that the Clintons force us to make this final and public rejection.”
  4. Fast Pete on

    I’m a long-time follower of Ruy’s wonderful analyses, and I appreciate and trust his distinctively science-based approach.
    I’m not seeing it in this partisan post, which could have appeared on any of a number of blogs.
    Let me advance several several points which seem to terminally drag down this poster’s thesis.
    1) Hillary Clinton is ahead – way head – in the votes from registered Democrats. If you add in Florida and Michigan votes, she is up around 1 million votes ahead.
    2) Nobody seems very sure who all these independent voters and crossover voters are that sway the grand total balance to Obama. But it seems generally agreed that some or many of them are Republicans.
    3) Some or many or them may out to make major mischief by for example encouraging naive “inevitable” posts like the one above.
    4) Google the blog world for Obama’s vulnerabilities as of today, and you may be a little shocked at how fast they are mounting up. And you may have a real problem figuring out what his answers will be on some of them.
    More electable? I’m getting less convinced daily.
    I’d like to hear more from Ruy and less from posters like this.

  5. cygnus on

    Obama has never actually done anything.
    Unless you’re already a true believer, his campaign is 100% rhetoric. Every gaffe is potentially fatal.
    Because he’s running as a uniter, he can’t run on issues. He might upset people.
    Nobody really knows who he is.
    “Big talk, no action.”
    If I were John McCain, I’d like my chances.

  6. b.a.b. on

    I am skeptical about the oft-repeated argument that Sen. Obama is more susceptible to Republican attacks in the general election. There are three factors to consider: (1) which candidate provides more fodder; (2) which candidate will be better at counteracting attacks; and–most important to my mind–(3) what will the actual effect of mudslinging be in the 2008 presidential race.
    Point (1) has to favor Obama; many say point (2) favors Clinton (largely based on experience, although I don’t know how successful she’s been outside NYS).
    But my sense is that today’s electorate is less sensitive to negative attacks than is widely believed. Accusations/insinuations/morphing faces into the terrorist-of-the-day–everybody knows what’s coming. I expect a collective yawn.
    People may use (mis)characterizations to rationalize their vote, but a candidate who WINS voters over doesn’t lose them because of a rival’s attacks. John Kerry was not swiftboated; he was a godawful candidate (despite being a clearly better choice).
    The equation remains:
    Presidential election victory = party base + swing voters
    Which candidate most enhances those factors?

  7. jkrasno on

    Thanks for the comments. Ed Kilgore’s already done a terrific job responding to most of them, but let me raise four quick points.
    1. The potential superdelegate/MI-FL controversies have gotten plenty of press, but strike me as low probability events. If Obama protects his lead in pledged delegates he’ll have all the superdelegate support he needs. If he ends the primaries on a losing streak Clinton could prevail. The odds against the first brokered convention since 1952 remain pretty long.
    2. I deliberately avoided mentioning current polling showing Obama doing better against McCain than Clinton because they’re vulnerable to the standard rejoinder that public opinion changes. Election results seem a less debatable indication of the breadth of Obama’s appeal.
    2. I want to reiterate that I think Obama’s “downside” is equal to Clinton’s: the vast majority of Democrats plus not quite enough independents to win.
    3. “links” asks which red states Obama will put into play. I can name three just from the states that he’s won already and were close in 2004: CO, IA, and VA. But part of the appeal of an Obama candidacy is the possibility that he’ll try to contest states that Democrats gave up on long ago and where he’s developed strong organizations during the primaries. Will he win many of them? Probably not, but there is some potential for surprise which could really change the narrow focus on FL and OH.
    As for McCain’s ability to paint Obama (or Clinton) as a surrender-er, I’ll point out that if Obama wins the votes of those who think the Iraq war was a mistake or want us out of Iraq w/i a year, he’ll end up with 60+% of the vote. Obama’s claim that he’ll be able to attract a higher percentage of war opponents than would Clinton is one of his main arguments for electability.

  8. links on

    If Obama is the nominee, and I am not sure he will be looking at the polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania, McCain will have a field day portraying himself as the experienced war vet who will defend America’s honor and Obama as the guy who would surrender like the French. That alone is enough to tip the election his way. Think about the electoral college: which red state does Obama have the best chance of winning back for the Dems? Certainly not the one Dems need– Ohio–with its large white blue collar working class vote, which might vote for Hillary in the general, but has proved much been less receptive to Obama. An Obama peppered with smears about how he would surrender and besmirch the nation’s honor is even less attractive to these voters, who already are not buying into Obama’s message, which is more about feeling good than any concrete plan for change.

  9. Tiparillo on

    My wife and I have been saying for weeks now that we are both so excited to have someone we want to vote for – instead of someone to vote against. So we will cast our votes enthusiastically for Obama in the Oregon primary – electibility be damned!
    I know, I know its small state Oregon so it doesn’t count, but that won’t keep me away from the polls!

  10. edkilgore on

    Thanks for the quick comments, folks. For purposes of clarity, I’d offer a couple of responses, not pretending to represent Jonathan Krasno’s views.
    Davtheway1 is discussing a hypothetical situation wherein HRC wins the nomination on the strength of superdelegates overriding pledged delegates. That’s a different ballgame than a straight-out comparison of the two candidates’ electability right now.
    Amccoy: Yes, current general election trial heats show Obama ahead of McCain, and HRC trailing him. But their positions were reversed a couple of weeks ago, and in any event, it’s awfully early. Last time a candidate named Clinton was on the ballot, in 1996, Bob Dole was well ahead of him at this juncture.
    The real quandry, as the staff post just before Krasno’s piece suggested, is whether you think either candidate will have an advantage going into the general election, or not. To the extent that most folks agree, and as Krasno also acknowledged, that Obama’s got a bigger “upside” than HRC, but also a bigger “downside,” the $64,000 question is whether the trade-off is between a certain if narrow HRC win and an uncertain but potentially “transformative” Obama win, or between risky candidacies on either side. That’s a topic that will be debated, and debatable, throughout the nomination fight.
    Ed Kilgore

  11. amccoy on

    Oh, and one more thing. The polls ALREADY show Hillary trailing McCain in a head to head matchup, and Obama ahead.
    I know FACTS seem to impress the devoted less than their own assertions, but the polls are the ONLY facts we have at this point.

  12. amccoy on

    I agree completely, but you are really just beginning to scratch the surface. Hillary is having trouble WITHIN the democratic party where she has all the advantages. She (and Bill) can lean on favors owed them for superdelegate support, connections to organisations, donations, etc.. These connections will solidify behind ANY democratic candidate, but right now she has the advantage, but is still behind.
    Democrats look at the Clinton years favorably, but many voters in the national election do not. Bill turned from a major positive to a mixed blessing with his outbursts, but in the general election the idea of putting “that man” back in the white house is a problem she needs to overcome, not an advantage.
    Democratic women look at her favorably. When the news media and/or Obama attacks her there is a backlash even among women that are otherwise ambivalent. Republican women do not have the same positive feelings. The republicans have been attacking her. The important issue there is they can continue to throw any attacks at her without any backlash. They are not attacking her because she is a woman, but because she is Hillary. They can be as negative as they want. Even the usual fatigue from negative ads doesn’t seem to apply to her. Obama hasn’t been attacked as much, but they still need to be careful in how they attack him. Go to far and a lot of moderates WILL create a backlash. If Hillary gets nominated hold on because it will get UGLY. You may think you have already heard everything, but it will get much worse.
    Then we can move on to their message. Hillary has been campaigning on “experience”. I am sure McCain loves that. Will he even wait until the first debate to say I agree with Hillary, we need the most experienced candidate and that is me. Obama’s message of change flows perfectly into his national campaign. He continues the dialog that we need a change and McCain is part of the problem.

  13. davthewav1 on

    The situation concerning Florida, Michigan, and the super delegates could cause the defeat of the Democratic Party in the general election if either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama do not receive enough delegates to clinch the nomination . Would changing the rules at the end of the game by including Florida and Michigan delegates to sway the results be fair or would it cause a rebellion ?
    John McCain is not so conservative that moderate independents and angry Democrats would not change their minds and vote for him if they felt like they were being cheated . Florida and Michigan were excluded for breaking the rules and the candidates agreed not to campaign in those states . If the Democratic Committee breaks their own rules now by counting them in then maybe they should be excluded by eliminating the super delegate count .
    If Howard Dean, chairman of the party, decides to include Florida and Michigan then maybe he should count the uncommitted votes in Michigan as Obama votes and exclude all of the super delegates then adjust the nominating delegate count accordingly and let the leading candidate win . That would be more of a truly democratic process . This is America after all and the people should decide who their president should be and not decided by a handful of politicians and elitist .
    A Concened Democrat


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