Against the "Limbaugh voter" argument, as Clinton leads in Pennsylvania

With more than a month to go to the Pennsylvania primary, it is Hillary Clinton who has the momentum in the Keystone state. And while it remains to be seen whether anything that can happen in the upcoming contests can eat into Obama's lead (especially now that Michigan and Florida don't seem like they will count at all), a large Clinton win in Pennsylvania would make a prolonged fight into a summer a near certainty.

Two polls were released today and both show a very strong New York Senator, with both candidates relying on the same electoral coalitions we have seen in the past few months:

  • PPP shows Clinton with a massive lead, 56% to 30%. Two internal numbers are particulalry noteworthy: Clinton enjoys a 44% lead among women, and Obama is only at 63% among blacks.
  • Quinnipiac shows a smaller lead for Hillary, 53% to 41%. But even this has clear pro-Clinton trendline, as she led 49% to 43% at the end of February. Also, this poll was taken starting on the 10th, so before Obama's Wright difficulties. Quinnipiac shows the Obama with a slight edge among voters with a college degree and men, with Clinton building her lead out of women (+24%) and voters without degrees (+20%).
Since the campaign shifted out of Iowa and New Hampshire, the pattern had always been the same: Clinton starts with a big lead in the next states as Obama is still unknown and the race tightens as time goes by and Obama gets introduced to voters. Even in Ohio and California, Obama reduced a considerable deficit before Clinton pushed back in the closing days to post comfortable victories. So Pennsylvania is the first state in which Clinton is starting by increasing her baseline lead -- and this suggests that Obama is not just trailing because of his name recognition. After all, given how engaged the campaign has been Pennsylvania voters are bound to have heard a lot about both candidates by now.

One major factor, of course, is Pennsylvania's being a closed primary which means only registered Democrats can participate. Given that Clinton rather consistently (though with some exceptions) runs better among Democratic voters than independents and Republicans, this is very good news for her and could allow her to build a bigger margin than she has been able to do in most primaries. Aware of this problem, the Obama campaign is running ads in Pennsylvania right now seeking to get independents and Republicans to register as Democrats to vote in the primary -- but he needs to do so by March 24th, which is the deadline by which the registration change needs to be accomplished.

And this gives me the opportunity to address the absurd accusation that is currently being waged against Clinton that she is surviving in the race based on Republicans crossing-over to help her go on and prolong the race. These electors, called "Limbaugh voters" (because this is a tactic Limbaugh advocated on his radio show prior to March 4th), would have crossed over in such numbers as to distort the results of Ohio, Texas and even Mississippi. To defend this argument, its proponents point to the exit polls in those three states, as Clinton is tied with Obama among Republican voters in OH and TX and is way ahead in MS. Since Obama used to be way ahead among GOP voters, the thinking goes, Clinton's progression has to be mischievous.

The use of the Mississippi numbers is perhaps the most absurd, as it was clear from the racial dynamics of that state (more than 70% of whites voted for Clinton) that the vote was proceeding along racial lines, and the Republicans who voted for Hillary were most probably white voters supporting Hillary to oppose a black candidate -- not that that makes it better, but it does mean that the "Limbaugh voter" argument in Mississippi incoherent. The AL exit polls show the same thing: Obama winning big among registered Dems, the two tied among independents, and Clinton ahead among Republicans.

Furthermore, suggesting that Clinton pulling within a tie among Republicans with Obama in the March 4th states makes her victories illegitimate makes little sense. For one, the Texas exit poll still shows her trailing Obama by 7% among registered GOPers. Hardly a stunning showing on Clinton's part. If anything it is Obama's victories that were made possible by Republican support in places like Missouri: He won the state 49% to 48%, but exit polls showed Clinton was ahead among Democrats. Her loss is due to the stunning margin Obama benefited from among Republicans (75% for him versus 21% for Clinton) and independents. Obama displayed that he could win a majority of Democratic support in many states -- but only in the South did he perform better among registered Democrats than registered Republicans.

The fundamental absurdity of the argument that Obama's victories are illegitimate because of Republican support is that Clinton would be delighted to contest closed primaries. Her margin of victory would generally be bigger even in states she won: She led by 7% among Texas Democrats (4% overall) and 14% among Ohio Democrats (10% overall). And you can be sure that she has no regret at sacrificing any "Limbaugh voter" in Pennsylvania.

Whatever you think of the relative merits of closed and open primaries, it is pretty clear which candidate prefers to run in which.



  • I don't understand this post's alleged dispelling of the "Limbaugh voter" argument. Saying that Clinton trailed Obama among GOPers in Texas doesn't address the question as to whether some of her Republican support, whatever the level, was done by people deliberately voting for who they thought was the weaker candidate. Nor does the relatively low level of 21% Republican voter support for Clinton in Mississippi tell us how many of that 21% might have been Limbaugh voters.

    To really answer the question, one would have to get good exit poll data among Republican voters in the Democratic primary to see why they voted as they did, not just compare Republican vote totals for Obama and Clinton. I have only anecdotal evidence: I just talked with someone today who says her parents and relatives in Ohio changed their party registration and voted for Clinton with no intention of voting for her in the general election, so I know there are at least few Limbaugh voters out there. But we can't determine that number based on the evidence presented in the post.

    By Blogger dsimon, At 19 March, 2008 21:51  

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