3.26.2008

Genearal election thoughts: The Democratic dilemma

As the primaries drag on, a question that has long been haunting Democratic operatives is how much will the Clinton-Obama showdown damage the party's eventual nominee. Will the candidate have time to repair the animosity within the party? And will the prolonged exposure (one might say monopoly) they have on political coverage right now (especially in a crucial swing state like Pennsylvania) help them build the infrastructure and support they will need in the fall or will it exasperate voters months before they are supposed to paying attention?

Gallup released a poll today that shows some worrisome news for both campaigns: 28% of Clinton supporters say they will vote McCain in November if Obama is the nominee, and 19% of Obama supporters say the same if Clinton is their party's candidate. While many people think that Obama supporters will be more bitter if the election is taken away from them, all the evidence for now confirms Gallup's finding to the contrary. Obama's weakness among Democrats in general election polls has been documented. But keep in mind that if Clinton wins the nomination she will probably have done so despite a pledged delegate lead for Obama -- and that could lead to many of his supporters being more bitter than they are now.

Leaving aside the question of who is better capable of unifying the party, it is clear that both candidates have a problem: 28% and 19% are both too high cross-over rates for either candidate to hope to be strong against McCain. Thankfully for Democrats, primary tensions tend to dissipate once nominations are over, and there is no reason to think that the cross-over numbers will be this high come September; but if the nomination fight continues all the way to August, all bets are off.

Clearly, however, Democratic voters are not ready to let the primaries end. A new Rasmussen poll shows that 22% of Democrats want Clinton to withdraw... the same exact proportion that want Obama to drop out. But Rasmussen's other poll for the day -- a general election poll from Missouri -- confirms that things are not looking up for Democrats right now:

  • John McCain comfortably leads both potential opponents, 50% to 41% against Hillary and 53% to 38% against Obama.
Missouri might have been trending red in the past few cycles but 2006 showed that a Democrat can win and many polls taken in the past few months showed Democrats leading or at least very competitive in the state. This type of poll showing McCain jumping ahead in purple state Democrats were looking to put in play is not good news for Democrats.

Meanwhile, today's Rasmussen daily tracking shows McCain up double-digits nationally for the first time, leading Obama 51% to 41%. He is ahead of Clinton 50% to 43%.

So is there no reason to hope that a prolonged primary fight could be good for the party? There certainly is, and here is the evidence. I have long argued that a 6 week battle in Pennsylvania would help the Democratic nominee in the fall, first of all because he/she will build a network and increase the party's visibility. Now comes word that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of registered Democrats which has now reached an all-time record. More than 4 million Pennsylvanians are now Democrats, a 4% increase from last year's election, and this is directly correlated to the primary: The record was reached on the last day to change your party registration and vote in the April 22nd primary.

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