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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Who’s More Electable?

(NOTE: As explained in an earlier 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.

One comment on “Who’s More Electable?

  1. DanC on

    Speaking as a “red state Democrat” and a “base” voter by anyone’s calculation, I was interested in the statement, “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 embedded assumption here is that none of the Democratic base will refuse an Obama candidacy. What if this is not correct? Some of us may be “base” voters, but we are not lemmings.


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