The electability debate misses the mark: Clinton and Obama both have weaknesses they will have to resolve

For much of the fall, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were riding high in general election polls. While they did not lead every single survey, most brought good news for Democrats, as Republicans were unable to stay constantly competitive. Once the GOP settled on John McCain, however, it became obvious that polls were tightening considerably. A streak of Pennsylvania surveys released this week, for example show McCain leading both Democrats, and the same is true in some Michigan polls.

This is not to say that the Republican suddenly looks to be favored -- Democrats are still putting in play a number of red states that McCain will have to work extremely hard to defend, and most indicators still favor their taking over the White House. But there is no question that McCain is looking stronger than Republicans were fearing he might. A recent NBC poll showed generic Democrat beating a generic Republican by 13%, but both Clinton and Obama leading McCain by only 2%. Why the disparity? One very important response right now is that both Democrats are showing some major weaknesses in the general election.

The electability debate has been raging with renewed vigor over the past few days since Mark Penn charged that Obama could not win Pennsylvania in the general. Implied in that charge was the worry that Obama will not be able to hold on to the middle-class or to blue-collar voters, a group of the electorate that has always shown willingness to cross-over to Republicans. The Clinton campaign is charging that Obama will transform Reagan Democrats into McCain Democrats. Naturally, the Obama campaign responds that nomination Clinton would push independents into the GOP's camp and would endanger the turnout among the youth.

Almost all general polls taken show that both of these criticisms are accurate, and right now they are so at equal proportions: Obama and Clinton are building different coalitions, but they are both missing some crucial groups that would allow them to take a solid lead against McCain. Obama needs to bolster his turnout among registered Democrats and reassure the party that he will hold on to the lower-classes, and Clinton has to perform better among independents. Different groups are still uncomfortable with either Clinton or Obama.

But since all these groups are willing to vote for a Democrat in some match-ups, it should reassure the party that McCain is not unconditionally appealing to them. It should point out that independents and the youth and the party's base are all very willing to vote for a Democrat this year (something they were not necessarily excited about in 2004) -- but provided they are comfortable with that nominee. The nominee will have to take advantage of the potential of building a formidable coalition (the VP pick is the most obvious way to do that), but the race will remain competitive if that coalition remains fractured.

I will naturally soon come out with an electoral college chart that rate the different states -- and then propose regular updates -- but I will probably wait for the Democratic nomination to be a bit more settled.



  • Point taken but I still think Obama's a greater risk in the general. He can't win groups that a Democrat has to win.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 15 March, 2008 05:24  

  • He has more upside and downside potential - Hillary is a more known quantity and will try and grind out a 270 EV win (like 2000 and 2004). Obama puts other states in play and will run more of a 50 state strategy (obviously not 50 since some states will stay GOP come what may - OK etc).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 15 March, 2008 09:05  

  • I don't think it's possible to use general and exit polls taken now to predict what voters will do in the fall. The situation is so fluid that even a rock solid coalition now, such as the AA vote for Obama, can disappear quickly given the right circumstances. Just try to predict todays situation using polls taken last fall. Having said that, I still enjoy the debates on who the nominee should be and why they should win or lose.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 15 March, 2008 10:09  

  • In 2004, we nominated John Kerry. The rationale: he was more electable.

    You know where that got us.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 15 March, 2008 10:38  

  • If the ems plan on just trying to win OH or FL whilst holding all their weak states like MI, PA, WI, WA, OR, MN then they are in trouble. You need to go on the offence to spread the GOP resources around - like VA, CO, IA, NM, NV as well as those listed at the start of this response.

    By Anonymous Guy, At 15 March, 2008 17:12  

  • Does Obama endorse Wright's black liberation theology?
    All his tap-dancing on the Wright issue misses the point. He can discount one or two statements, but the entire world-view of this preacher is based on a black-separatist worldview that views "white America" as an alien and menacing force.

    If Obama doesnt endorse that, then why all his past praise for him, his 20 years of associating with his church and calling him an advisor, to the point of using Wright's phrase to title his book?

    The honest answer is the difficult one, and that is that Obama does to a large extent agrees and endorses those views, or he would have left that church long ago.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 16 March, 2008 00:19  

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