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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

HRC’s Final Hope: General Election Polls

Last night’s Democratic presidential primaries in NC and IN changed nothing, or changed everything, depending on whose account you choose to accept (see the previous Staff post for a compilation of post-primary “reads.”)
From one point of view, HRC survived yet another definitive blow to her candidacy by pulling out a narrow win in IN, which mattered more than NC because it was perceived as a “toss-up” state. (Clinton’s own spin last night capitalized on Barack Obama’s ill-advised remark after PA that IN would be a “tie-breaker.”). The next state to vote is WV on May 13–a place where Clinton should win very big–followed by KY (another likely Clinton win) and OR on May 20, and then MT, SD and PR on June 3. In the middle of this final stretch comes the May 31 meeting of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee where Clinton is praying for a decision to seat at least some delegates from MI and FL, while retroactively validating her popular vote margins in the two states.
From another point of view (the one most often heard from media pundits last night), Clinton lost her one chance to throw a monkey wrench into Obama’s nomination by losing NC, and/or by losing the overall combined delegate and popular vote by a sizable margin (Obama basically erased the popular vote margin Clinton won in PA). She’s out of money again, as witnessed by her cancellation of today’s campaign events to focus on fundraising. Moreover, Obama is now clearly out of the tailspin that briefly threatened his candidacy when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright decided to claim headlines for several days. He can now afford to cut a deal on MI and FL, and exert pressure on superdelegates and party leaders to seal the deal well before the convention.
As Chris Bowers pointed out pungently in a late-night post, the “changes everything” interpretation is a little strange, insofar as the delegate and popular vote math that suddenly seems so compelling to the chattering classes after last night’s results has been pointing to the virtual certainty of an Obama nomination for well over a month now, and maybe longer:

All of the arguments that could be used by the punditry to declare the nomination campaign over could have been used really at any point since Wisconsin. For some reason, those arguments appear to be sticking tonight, whereas they weren’t earlier. According to the logic that ends the campaign tonight, there was no reason to torture us for the past two months, except to damage Democrats for the sake of damaging Democrats

Chris hints at one factor in the shifting media narrative of the contest that I’ve always thought was an irrationally big deal: the fixation of the media with “wins” and “losses” in particular states, compounded by a focus on beating expectations. In terms of the actual mechanics of winning the nomination, even if you care about non-delegate factors like cumulative popular vote, it really doesn’t matter at all whether one candidate or another “wins” the popular vote in individual states. This isn’t a general election, where a “win” gets you electoral votes. But without question, media coverage of the nominating process has given vast and undeserved attention to this phenomenon, for the obvious reason that it’s “better television” to “call” a state for Clinton or Obama–particularly if it’s an “upset”–than to report the slow, complicated cumulative math of pledged delegates and/or total popular vote. This is probably the price we pay for a system of nominating candidates that’s staged by individual states over a long period of time.
As we get closer to the final decision, however, the math has to take over, and absent some “upset” that’s viewed as a “game-changer,” that’s what seems to be happening in media perceptions today.
So where does that leave us? Assuming she can raise or lend herself enough money to give herself that option, Clinton’s candidacy now comes down to avoiding extinction by superdelegates and party leaders in the hopes that some external event–i.e., a “scandal” or major “gaffe”–will suddenly make Barack Obama look truly unelectable. For that reason, the best indicator to look at from now on is probably not pledged delegates or popular votes, or any particular primary outcome, but general election polls. HRC desperately needs a batch of polls showing that she’d beat John McCain handily while Obama would lose to him by a significant margin. Her campaign may even succeed in convincing superdelegates to hold off on shifting to Obama for a while just to make sure he doesn’t “crater” in general election polls after he’s become the putative nominee. But if such polls don’t give her what she needs (and they haven’t so far), it truly is over, sooner or later.
For history-minded readers, I can recall a precedent for HRC’s situation, way back in 1968, when Nelson Rockefeller (in tacit alliance with Ronald Reagan) launched a late challenge to the nomination of Richard Nixon. Rocky’s whole campaign was about electability: Nixon was famously a loser, and would lose to Hubert Humphrey in November. About a week before the Republican Convention, a major poll came out showing Nixon running better against Humphrey than Rockefeller, instantly croaking Rockefeller’s candidacy and guaranteeing Nixon the nomination. Like Rocky then, Clinton’s fate is now in the hands of the pollsters and the superdelegates and media wizards who consult them.

2 comments on “HRC’s Final Hope: General Election Polls

  1. edkilgore on

    Thanks for this comment, and for your validation of my memory on this subject, which I began to question after I wrote the post.
    Out of curiosity: in ’68, did you ever cross paths with Rocky’s southern regional director, a guy named Newt Gingrich?
    Ed Kilgore

  2. Tanya Melich on

    As a member of the Rockefeller delegate boiler room staff in 1968, Ed is correct about the Rockefeller-Reagan campaigns trying to stop Nixon. The trouble with the strategy was the failure of the Rockfeller campaign to concentrate on traditional delegate deal making and instead concentrate on a non-political solution of using polling data to prove that Nixon was “not electable.” This was a disastrous approach. While we were waiting for public opinion to save our effort, Nixon was making deals to win delegates. Clinton’s campaign seems to be following a similar strategy.


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