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Thursday, February 14, 2008
Is Senator Clinton the Most Electable Democrat?

There's been a lot of chatter lately on the polls that show Sen. Clinton narrowly ahead (48-47) of Sen. McCain in a match-up poll, and Sen. Obama with a slightly large gap over McCain (49-47). This has led to the meme that Sen. Obama is more electable and the Hillary is not.

However, what most laymen who read polls fail to understand is the snapshot nature of polls, when public opinion, in fact, is quite dynamic. If you look at the (mostly exit poll) data, you would note several statistical regularities that hold up in the match-up polls: (a) currently independents favor McCain, (b) men favor McCain, and (c) Republicans are itching to run against Clinton.

Three pieces of evidence, however, should turn us away from the naive "Obama is more electable" narrative.

(i) In the current polls, Obama-McCain, and Clinton-McCain are in a statistical tie. The margin of error is four points, and both candidates are always within 2 of McCain, which has not changed for a few weeks. Moreover, in three way races between Obama-McCain-Clinton, which would never happen in reality, Clinton beats Obama handily and loses to McCain narrowly.

(ii) As late as early January, Clinton, according to polls, had the support of 40% of the Democratic black community.

(iii) McCain, after supposedly wrapping up the nomination, continues to lose states to Mike Huckabee, and requires prominent conservatives to assure everyone that he is a "real conservative. Even in states McCain wins, he splits the independent vote with Governor Huckabee, and looses the evangelicals in droves.

Looking at (ii), we now know that this black support has dropped to 10-15%. Why is that? Mostly the bad news that came out of South Carolina. That suggests that even a poll that was stable through the fall, summer, and last winter can dramatically change in the course of campaigning. In short, support is dynamic and responds to campaigning. Let's keep that in the back of our minds.

In light of (i), a large function of Obama's appeal to independents and the disaffected is that so far no record of politicking has come to light. For many Democrats, he is an unknown quantity, and they tend to support Clinton. More importantly, when Obama and Clinton divide the electorate, McCain has a larger plurality. If Obama was so popular among disaffected Republicans, and we have evidence that McCain does not appeal to the disaffected conservatives in particular, then Obama, and not McCain, should have the largest plurality of voters. Yet McCain continues to receive the potential votes of Republicans--some of whom may like Obama and hate Hillary--who vote straight Republican tickets.

This piece of evidence suggests that Clinton is more electable because the Democratic base likes her, and she can spend more of our resources in outreach, and making a competent case for Democratic policies, than Obama who would likely need to introduce himself to the voters. We know that voters who tend to meet Clinton late in the game (within the last week and on the day of voting) tend to break toward her.

Moreover, this is why recently, the center-left and the rightists have been comparing Obamania to a cult and attacking Sen. Obama rather than Sen. Clinton. Because the voters don't know him, the sooner his opponents can define the narrative (establishing him a media phenomena, a rich liberal, a campaign built on platitudes, an inexperienced politician whose never finished a term i office, a timid politician who votes present, doesn't report for Senate duty, isn't prepared to deal with the terrorist threat, surrounded by liberal law professors when two Supreme Court vacancies are up--in short treating him like they treated Edwards last election), the easier he'll be able to beat in the general election.

Yet, one could say that precisely because Clinton is known, the independents won't move toward her. This is where (iii) and political independents come into play.

The conventional wisdom is that McCain will have to go to his right to win his party over, which includes choosing a rightist governor as his running mate. Moving to his right, however, pushes McCain away from independents in two ways. (a) What independents value is his maverick
streak; pandering to the right is the opposite of maverick. (b) What the right-wing loves is to attack Hillary, and what independents hate are smear campaigns. Precisely because Hillary is learning how to campaign non-negatively, and precisely because her only hope of keeping Obama-supporters in the general election is to continue doing so, the right-wing will look absolutely nuts and drive the independents away in droves.

The alternative, that McCain doesn't placate his base, is that the united Democratic-base, feminist independents, and Hillary-leaning independents turn out for Hillary in the election and the Republicans don't. Giving Clinton the election handily.

This doesn't even factor is the Latino and Asian voters, which Bush won in 2000 and increased his margins in 2004, or the percentage of women in the electorate and how they seem to dislike the politics of pile-on.

Basically, we Clinton wins either way. If only she and her team were making the case.