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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sound and Unsound Electability Arguments

The hard time that Barack Obama’s had in “closing the deal” with primary voters has quite naturally raised the volume of various “electability” arguments about both Democratic candidates, some sound, some not so sound.
It’s important to begin by noting that the most objective (if grossly premature) evidence is in general election head-to-head polls. RealClearPolitics’ summary of recent Obama/McCain and Clinton/McCain national trial heats includes eight April surveys. Obama and McCain are tied in three, and Obama leads in the other five by margins ranging from one to five percent. Clinton and Obama are also tied in two polls, but the rest are all over the place, with Clinton up in three by margins ranging from three to six percent, and McCain leading in three by margins ranging from two to five percent. Overall, these polls are pretty much a wash between the two Democrats, and close to a wash with McCain. They certainly don’t exhibit the catastropic weakness some are attributing to Barack Obama.
Aside from general election polls, the main intra-Democratic electability arguments revolve around various extrapolations of primary results to the general election. And that’s where things start getting a little irrational.
As Noam Scheiber explains today at TNR’s The Stump:

[The] relevant question isn’t: Which demographic groups is each candidate winning the primary? The relevant question is: Which candidate is most likely to win the general-election version of their primary coalition (assuming they more or less hang on to the Democratic supporters of their primary opponent)?
In concrete terms, Hillary’s primary coalition consists of working-class people, seniors, and women. Obama’s consists of African-Americans, younger voters, and affluent/educated voters. Set aside African-Americans, who aren’t really a swing group. The question then becomes: 1.) How likely is Hillary to win non-Democratic working-class people, non-Democratic seniors, and non-Democratic women? 2.) How likely is Obama to win non-Democratic young people and non-Democratic affluent/ educated people?

Historically, primary strengths and weaknesses are not necessarily transmittable to general elections. As Matt Yglesias reminds us, Al Gore and John Kerry were essentially the “beer track” candidates in their nomination struggles with Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. They famously struggled to compete with George W. Bush among white-working-class voters in the general election (though both did, BTW, carry the lunch-bucket states of Pennsylvania and Michigan).
You can certainly argue that there are things about Barack Obama that will make him a difficult sale to white working-class voters in a general election, just as Hillary Clinton may have some problems with upscale “reform-oriented” independents. But that’s simply not self-evident from primary voting patterns.

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