Saturday, February 9, 2008

Yet Again: It's About Electability

(Last updated March 22, 2008, at bottom, with new poll data and analysis.)

It's fine to debate which Democrat we'd prefer to have in the White House, but boil it down and the hard reality is that while both have their flaws -- and Hillary has more flaws than Obama -- either of them would be preferable to having another Republican in the White House. It's crass, but we can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Democrats need to win. In other words: it's the electability, stupid. (I've written about this before; check out the "electability" links here.)

So here are the latest "matchup" poll numbers, testing how Clinton and Obama each is likely to perform in the general election against the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain:

Obama captured 48% of the vote in the theoretical match-up against McCain's 41%, the TIME poll reported, while Clinton and McCain would deadlock at 46% of the vote each. *** The difference, says Mark Schulman, CEO of Abt SRBI, which conducted the poll for TIME, is that "independents tilt toward McCain when he is matched up against Clinton But they tilt toward Obama when he is matched up against the Illinois Senator." Independents, added Schulman, "are a key battleground."

The same Time article also emphasizes that Democrats can't take electability for granted:

For much of the year, Democrats have enjoyed a wide margin over any Republican rival in theoretical match-ups. Those margins have begun to shrink in recent weeks.

Bill Schneider of CNN agrees:

Clinton [has] ... higher negatives than Obama -- and McCain. Forty-four percent of the public say they don't like Clinton, compared with 36 percent who don't like McCain and 31 percent who don't like Obama, according to the CNN poll conducted February 1-3. *** Men give McCain an 18-point lead over Clinton, 57 percent to 39 percent, according to the CNN poll. ... But if McCain and Obama went head to head, McCain's lead among men shrinks to three, 49 percent to 46 percent -- statistically a tie. Women, on the other hand, vote for either Clinton or Obama by similar margins. Some Democrats may be worried about how Obama will fare with white voters. Whites give McCain a 15-point lead over Clinton, (56 percent for McCain, 41 percent for Clinton). But Obama actually fares better than Clinton with white voters. McCain still leads, but by a smaller margin, (52 to 43 percent).

There are three big things to think about here:

1) Independent and moderate voters matter: McCain and Obama both are doing very well with Independents. Hillary, significantly, is not: as a party insider and power broker, she has tons of partisan loyalty but little appeal outside of die-hard Dems. So if the race is Hillary vs. McCain, the independents will flock to McCain, and McCain will win. But if the race is Obama vs. McCain, they'll split the Independent and moderate votes; Obama will eliminate McCain's main advantage, which will let voters' general sense of fatigue and dissatisfaction with the current Republican administration work its magic.

2) Prejudice Doesn't Seem to be Hampering Obama: In a hypothetical matchup against McCain, Obama performs better than Hillary, not just with blacks, but with whites as well. On the "Mars vs. Venus" front, Clinton performs worse than Obama with men, and has no advantage over him even with women. This means that, contrary to some people's fears, his race isn't going to hurt him -- it may even be helping him -- while Clinton's sex won't help her against McCain -- not even among women. This black man is more electable than this white man or this white woman. We can debate the role of sexism in this election -- some see overwhelming misogyny, while I think the anti-Hillary sentiment has more to do with her Margaret Thatcher-like politics and personality than her sex -- but the bottom line is that, to the extent racial and gender demographics matter, Obama has the advantage over Clinton in a contest against McCain. At a minimum, we don't need to fear the "Bradley effect" (that secret racists will cost Obama the election).

3) A Tie Is Not OK: Obama has a six-point edge over McCain. Clinton, who's already well known to the electorate, has no edge whatsoever --and the Republican attack machine hasn't even gotten rolling yet. After seven years of Republican mismanagement have ruined our military, our schools, our world standing, and our economy, any Democratic candidate who's able to draw a feeble breath should have a built-in advantage over any Republican. Yet Hillary has no advantage at all over McCain. If the best she can do now is a tie, is she really who we want to pin our hopes on in November?

UPDATE, FEB. 11, 2008: These electability figures continue to hold true, and more and more people are starting to think seriously about Hillary's deficit in that area, if the number of blog posts on Google, and Google searches leading readers to this site, are any indication. Jedreport at has a good, neutral analysis of this issue. His most salient graphic, I think, is this one:

Both Clinton and Obama have suffered some as they've battled each other and as McCain has gained a "bounce" from moving into "presumptive nominee" status -- but for over a year now, and taking a total of 62 polls into account, Obama has ALWAYS run better against McCain than Hillary has. And while Obama seems to be regaining his mojo (see how his curve is flattening out at the end?), Clinton is continuing to worsen, albeit a little more slowly than she was a couple months back. UPDATE FEB. 12: and as yesterday's poll shows (see very bottom of this post), Obama is now beating McCain by six points -- meaning that his Q1 2008 number on the chart above probably will be not just flat, but spiking back up near its previous high point -- a tremendous uptick -- while Hillary's probably will stay below McCain's "baseline."

Maybe most significant is the fact that Clinton began her campaign as a loser when compared to McCain, despite being one of the most well-known politicians on the planet already. Obama, too, started off 1.1% below McCain, but he wasn't well-known, and voters tend to pick names they've heard of, even if they don't know much about them. But Clinton was at least as well known as McCain a year ago, and still fared poorly against him, just as she's faring poorly against him now.

So for those who argue that there's not enough difference between Obama and Hillary to matter (including Paul Krugman, who I usually admire but who strongly supports Clinton and is obsessively, and inaccurately, attacking Obama every chance he gets and gets both the numbers and their interpretation completely wrong here) -- to those people, I ask: if we want to actually win the Presidency, would you rather we run the candidate with the consistently successful orange line above, or the one with the sometimes-up-sometimes-down, and still dropping, green line?

UPDATED AGAIN, FEB. 11: I keep laying out the fact that Obama's more electable than Hillary. HispanicPundit has a clear, cogent explanation of why that is:

Democrats are likely to win the presidency in November for two reasons: Independents going Democrat and Republicans staying home.

Hillary Clinton, to a much greater degree than Obama, reverses these two trends. Independents, given Hillary’s high negative polling, are less likely to vote for her compared to Obama. The right despises her, significantly more so than Obama - making many Republicans vote against her who would have otherwise stayed home.

There are really two things that give the Republicans a chance to win this election: Nominating the most moderate Republican - which they have already done given McCain – and get the most polarizing figure on the Democrat side, making Hillary the most favorable candidate.

The Republicans, by sacrificing ideology for more electability, seem serious in wanting to win in November - Democrats, by favoring Hillary over Obama, do not.

Wish I'd said that so well.

Also, I debunk Paul Krugman's inaccurate pro-Hillary electability analysis here.

AND AGAIN, FEB. 11: In the "who ya gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?" category, Hillary Clinton has released a memo to journalists claiming that she is more electable than Barack Obama vs. John McCain. Yet in the same WaPo piece today reporting that development, her claim is debunked:

[R]ecent polls from Time, CNN, Cook Political Report, Post/ABC, Fox News and Rasmussen ... all ... show Obama running slightly to considerably stronger than Clinton in hypothetical matchups against McCain. A new survey out today -- conducted by the Associated Press-- affirms that idea with Obama leading McCain, 48 percent to 42 percent, while Clinton leads McCain, 46 percent to 45 percent.

It also nicely explains the two candidates' takes on the electability issue. Hillary's is old-school, DLC-centrist, fear-based; Barack's is hopeful, forward-looking, and takes the fight to the Republicans instead of pretending we can win a fight on their turf:

The electability argument is, at its center, dependent on how Democrats view this nominating fight.Clinton and her team believe that the party is essentially risk-averse, a position born of the disappointing results of the last two presidential elections in which the party's nominees were negatively defined by a concerted Republican effort.

Obama's claim of electability is based on the idea that the way politics has been conducted over the past several decades need not to be the way it operates going forward. The driving force behind Obama's argument is that unlike the past several elections that have been focused on turning out the base of each party and trying to peel off just enough independents to win, the 2008 contest could well be a transformational choice in which independents and even many Republicans put aside partisanship and cast a vote for him.

Left unsaid, but of course implied, is that Clinton is far too polarizing to change the electoral math and that, if she were able to win, would do so in a squeaker.

Which, of course, is what I've been saying.


An Associated Press-Ipsos poll just released (more analysis here) shows Senator Obama's continuing strength, both against Senator McCain and as compared to Senator Clinton. In that newest poll, conducted AFTER Super Tuesday (specifically, Feb. 7-10), Hillary Clinton arguably beats McCain by one point (within the 3+ point margin of error) -- while Barack Obama cleanly beats McCain, 48% - 42%. (Which, of course, is where the Democratic candidate should be after seven years of Bush's mismanagement of the country.)

And the specifics are significant, too. Some are worried that a hidden, racist "Bradley effect" will sink Obama in the general election -- but Obama keeps winning in solidly white states throughout the midwest and north, and this poll indicates that white voters like Obama and Clinton exactly equally. Women? In a matchup against McCain, Obama does BETTER than Clinton with women voters! Minorities? In a McCain matchup, Obama will get 74% of minority votes. Young men? Obama beats McCain by 9 points; McCain beats Clinton by seven -- a 16 point advantage to Obama. And on and on.

Most tellingly: Obama wins the votes of moderates and independents, even though his Senate voting record is more liberal than Clinton's. He's winning those voters back to the Democratic Party the same way Ronald Reagan stole them from us: not by running to the center, calculating and triangulating all the way, but by standing on his principles while not being afraid to look for common ground when it truly exists. One is Machiavellian; the other is statesmanlike. And voters, who know a lot more than we give them credit for, will go for the statesman every time they're offered on -- which is about once a generation. Barack Obama is this generation's unique statesman, and none of Hillary's inside-the- Beltway tricks can cancel that out. Or at least, we shouldn't allow them to cancel that out.

UPDATE, MARCH 22, 2008: When I first posted this, few people were paying attention to Clinton and Obama's relative electability, and many of those who did found the question distasteful. My, how quickly things change! Clinton's campaign has changed themes many times, but now has pretty much abandoned anything related to actual issues and is focused almost exclusively on electability, her meme being: "although I can't conceivably win the popular vote, the superdelegates should toss me the nomination anyway, because polls increasingly show that Obama has been damaged so badly by attacks on his experience, his ability to serve as Commander in Chief, his patriotism, his race, even his religion, that he is unelectable. Oh -- and please ignore the fact that I'm the one who intentionally caused most of that damage."

That's it; that's Clinton's last stand. That Clinton's strategy is to kneecap-then-diss is clear, if you just note (1) that she officially announced she was going to "throw the kitchen sink" at Obama just before the Texas and Ohio elections, (2) all of her attacks have centered on Republican talking points, reinforcing McCain's ability to reuse them in the general election (which violates all the unwritten rules of Presidential primaries -- you attack your opponent on differences that matter to Democrats, not damage your party's chances of winning the general election by adopting the other side's frame), and (3) no significant polls showed Clinton more electable than Obama until AFTER (1) and (2) above took place.

But Clinton's miserable strategy doesn't have legs. If one wears one's reading glasses and focuses only on the poll in each day's paper, then Obama's electability has suffered lately; but the general election is eight months away, so what really matters is long term trends -- which, as the original post shows, is that Obama is fundamentally a better matchup against McCain than Clinton is.

And even short-term, Clinton's tactics aren't holding up very well. Two bits of news today show the thinness of Clinton's "lead":

A) Voters fundamentally trust both Obama and McCain and deeply distrust Clinton -- a bias that will be almost impossible to overcome; and

B) Despite what Clinton's campaign keeps claiming, Obama has polled as being more electable against McCain every day for the past week (as well as for the past year!), and even his brief sag in polls against Clinton has reversed.

Will those numbers be the same tomorrow? For A, absolutely: voters know Clinton well and their poor opinion of her -- only 44% find her trustworthy? Yikes! -- isn't likely to change much. For B, absolutely not: Obama, Clinton and McCain will swap places over and over in daily polling, which is precisely my point: like investing in the stock market, it's long-term trends, not day-trading, that wins. So don't be fooled: McCain's likely to whup Hillary in the Fall, but Obama remains likely to whup McCain.
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