If you're trying to gauge a candidate's viability in April of an election year, you probably don't want to start with the polls. Public opinion is notoriously fluid in the spring and, with no immediate need to decide, voters regularly flirt with candidates about whom they still know relatively little. At this point in the campaign season, the best estimates of a potential nominee's strengths and weaknesses are probably derived from a dispassionate analysis of the issues, both personal and political, that are likely to dominate each party's talking points in the fall.
Nevertheless, the polls are out there and it is sometimes irresistible to take a peek and try to draw some tentative conclusions about where things might stand in November. The website www.electoral-vote.com provides a useful map of the 50-state match-ups between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, on the one hand, and John McCain on the other. Let's start with the headline before we get into the spin:
IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD TODAY, HILLARY CLINTON WOULD ALREADY HAVE SECURED ENOUGH ELECTORAL VOTES TO BECOME PRESIDENT; BARACK OBAMA WOULD NOT.
This alone obviously does not prove that Clinton is the most electable Democrat. It is, after all, still six months before Election Day and plenty can change between now and then. In addition, many of the states in which Clinton leads are very close, some within the statistical margin of error (this is also true for Obama). And there are some goofy results in there, indicative of a period in which voters have yet to give serious thought to the general election: California, for example, is improbably listed as a "weak Democratic" state.
Still, it is what it is. The Democrats win 289 electoral votes and the presidency with Hillary at the helm. They win 269 with Obama, one short of the magic number. Indeed, for Obama to win under this scenario, he would have to capture the one state on his map that is tied, North Carolina, which hasn't supported a Democratic candidate for president since Obama was a Hawaiian high school sophomore (i.e., 1976). On balance, then, this information would, if anything, support those who argue that Clinton is the superior choice to face John McCain in November.
But wait—you haven’t heard from the 24/7 pro-Obama spin machine that is Daily Kos, the premier left-wing blog. The site's proprietor, Markos Moulitsas, helpfully provides us with the following summary information:
Strong Dem: Obama, 67; Clinton 74
Weak Dem: Obama 144; Clinton 98
Barely Dem: Obama 58; Clinton 117
Tied: Obama 15; Clinton 10
Barely GOP: Obama 76; Clinton 13
Weak GOP: Obama 44; Clinton 89
Strong GOP: Obama 134: Clinton 137
Fair enough, I suppose, though he does leave out the grand total, which is, as we've noted, 289-269 in Clinton's favor. But then, in the best traditions of the cable TV pundits, Moulitsas proceeds to spin like a gyroscope. Here are his arguments for why a deficit of 20 electoral votes actually represents an Obama victory:
1. Obama does better if you look only at strong and weak Democratic states.
2. McCain does worse against Obama if you look only at strong and weak GOP states.
3. More Democratic electoral votes are "at risk" with Clinton because more of her support comes from the "barely Democratic" column. (Does Moulitsas not recognize that this is simply a re-statement of point #1, or does he think his readers' analytical skills are that dull?)
4. "Obama puts more pressure on McCain states." (A re-statement of point #2.)
5. "Obama holds the Kerry states better." It's not clear why this is an advantage since Kerry, you know, lost. But I guess Moulitsas had only two arguments but wanted to stretch them into five.
A couple of things the Daily Kos webmaster did not point out in his somewhat redundant analysis. First, both of the states that decided the past two presidential elections—Ohio and Florida—fall into the Clinton, but not the Obama, column. Indeed, with Obama heading the ticket, Florida becomes a "strong GOP" state. Moreover, to say that Obama "holds the Kerry states" sidesteps the fact that, other than a couple of very iffy pickups in Colorado and Nevada, that's really all he's got. Obama, of course, was supposed to be the candidate who expanded the Democratic coalition beyond the parameters of 2000 and 2004. But outside of Denver and Las Vegas, the evidence suggests that his electoral territory would be little different from that of Al Gore and John Kerry. So much for the new Democratic majority.
The problem with Moulitsas and many of his allies in the left blogosphere is that they have built a small empire that may be just as important to them as their original mission, which was to replace Republicans with Democrats. An Obama nomination validates Kos' mantra of "people powered politics"; a Clinton win renders his movement impotent and, perhaps, irrelevant. Moulitsas is a player now, with a gig at "Newsweek" and a regular seat at the pundits' table. There is more at risk for him these days than the mere fate of the Democratic Party. (Indeed, even now, he can't bring himself to concede that the amateurish anti-Joe Lieberman campaign of 2006 was an unqualified disaster for the cause.)
It goes without saying that none of us yet knows how the 2008 election will play out. It is quite likely that John McCain will never be stronger than he is right now, as he traipses around the hinterlands pretending to care about people (black Alabamians, displaced Katrina survivors, etc.) whose lives his economic policies would only further devastate. But it's also very possible that Barack Obama—like John Kerry before him—is currently enjoying his high-water mark in terms of popularity. Experience tells us that relatively unknown quantities—Carter in 1976, Dukakis in 1988, Kerry in 2004—generally see their appeal decline as the campaign wears on.
Say what you want about Hillary Clinton, but she is one of the best known quantities in American politics today. She has her deficiencies and a lot of people despise her beyond all cognitive understanding, but very few people have yet to decide how they feel about her. Of the three remaining candidates in the race, she is the one most likely to remain where she is in the polls, both nationally and at the state-by-state level. There's not much chance that she will win more than 310 electoral votes, but it's equally unlikely that the bottom will drop out on her come October.
But don't ever expect to read that in DailyKos.