Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Is Hillary Clinton Electable?

It seems silly to make predictions about the 2008 presidential race now. So much can happen in the next six months before the first meaningful ballot is cast (in the Iowa caucuses) and in the next 15 months before the general election. But as the field shapes up, there is a trend emerging that should be worrisome to anyone who would like to see a Democrat elected next year.

The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 is viewed in many ways as a pivotal moment in 20th Century history. People often point to his age, his religion or his style as being revolutionary. But, in thinking about the 2008 election, JFK's win stands for something else entirely: 1960 was the last time the American people sent someone to the White House whose previous highest elected office was U.S. Senator, and Kennedy was the last Democrat from a Blue State to win the presidency.

Seems odd? It's true. Follow with me:

1964 - Lyndon Johnson - President
1968 - Richard Nixon - Vice President
1972 - Richard Nixon - President
1976 - Jimmy Carter - Governor
1980 - Ronald Reagan - Governor
1984 - Ronald Reagan - President
1988 - George H.W. Bush - Vice President
1992 - Bill Clinton - Governor
1996 - Bill Clinton - President
2000 - George W. Bush - Governor
(Even if you believe Bush stole the election, Al Gore was a vice president.)
2004 - George W. Bush - President

Laid out, in black-and-white, it's a pretty powerful visual. We don't elect senators. We just don't. And, the only Democrats elected in this era were from southern states (Johnson-Texas, Carter-Georgia, and Clinton-Arkansas; and for those who believe the 2000 election went the other way, Gore-Tennessee).

You would think that after spending 20 of the last 28 years under Reagan-Bush rule, Democrats would rank electability as the number one characteristic in a presidential candidate. Hell, Democrats should support an Affleck-Springer ticket if it would win. But, year after year, it's as if Democrats just don't get it. They refuse to even begin to correctly figure out why their record in presidential elections in the last 40 years makes them the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of politics. Anyone who got a C in history (like, for example, our current president, I'm guessing) should have realized that in 2004, the U.S. was not going to elect a Democratic U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. The statistics were right there for them, and yet, somehow, Democratic voters put their collective heads in the sand and sent John Kerry to the slaughterhouse.

You see, there is no real national election for the presidency. Only 10 to 15 states are really in play. Or, put another way, if New York or Mississippi are contested, that election is going to be a landslide (hello George McGovern and Walter Mondale). To the swing states that really choose the president every four years (New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, Missouri, etc.), the word "Senator" roughly translates to "elite insider we don't trust." And, the word "Massachusetts" (feel free to substitute "New York," "Illinois," "California" or any other solidly Blue State here) roughly translates in the swing states to "city liberal out of touch with my values who wants to take my guns away from me."

When Kerry got the nomination, Democrats told each other, "He's a war hero! He's smart! He looks like a leader!", but in the swing states they said, "He's an elite insider we don't trust and a city liberal out of touch with my values who wants to take my guns away from me. Oh, and what the hell is that sailing thing he's doing? He looks ridiculous." Democrats are from Mars, and the electorate is from Venus. Maybe we should get Dr. Phil to work on this communication problem, since Red Staters seem to love him.

Now we turn to 2008. We have a sitting president with a an approval rating of 32% even in his own propaganda arm's poll (Fox News). Republicans in Congress have continued to support the war that has made the president so unpopular in the first place. The American people were so pissed off at Republicans they handed Congress to the Democrats in November 2006. If ever America was ready for a Democratic president, now would seem to be the time. In fact, on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Tim Russert showed two polls from mid-July that asked voters if they were going to support a Democrat or a Republican for the presidency, and in both polls the generic Democrat was the overwhelming winner (51% to 27% in one, 49% to 38% in the other).

So, with the prize there for the taking, who has emerged as the two top candidates in the Democratic party? Two sitting U.S. Senators from Blue States. What about the third place guy? A former U.S. Senator (at least he's from a Red State). It would be funny if the stakes weren't so high.

What about the Republicans? Well, their front runners are a former governor (Mitt Romney) and a former mayor (Rudy Giuliani). Whose candidacy has crashed harder than a car driven by Lindsay Lohan? A sitting U.S. Senator (John McCain). The only potential front-runner who was a senator is Fred Thompson, and he, of course, wields the great get-out-of-jail free-card: he was a television star. Now, I'm not suggesting that the candidates' past jobs are the whole reason for their current placements in the race, but you can't help but notice that the GOP field looks more like the types of politicians Americans generally install in the White House than the Democrats have put together. It makes me feel like the Republicans get it, and the Democrats still don't.

While Obama has surprised observers by winning the money-raising battle and John Edwards leads the polls in Iowa, Clinton is looking more and more like the candidate to beat. On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Russert showed the results of a national Gallup poll of Democrats taken between July 12 and July 15 that had Clinton at 40%, Obama at 28% and Edwards at 13%.

While I am a great admirer of Clinton, I do not see her as an electable candidate. In addition to her being a sitting U.S. Senator from a Blue State, for whatever reason, fair or unfair, she has as many detractors as supporters. Russert showed that the same Gallup poll revealed that 47% of respondents viewed her favorably, but 48% viewed her unfavorably. More troubling is the fact that there are so few undecided people out there on how they feel about her (only 5%). She's so well-known, people like her or they don't. There is not a lot of wiggle room.

Consider by comparison that 11% of respondents had never heard of Obama, and his breakdown was 49% favorable versus 26% unfavorable. That means that a full quarter of the electorate is either undecided or has not heard of Obama. He has more room to move. I am not citing Obama's numbers to make the argument that he can win or that Democrats should necessarily support him. After all, he, too, is a sitting Blue State U.S. Senator. Rather, his numbers help put into perspective some of the obstacles Clinton faces in addition to her Blue State Senator status.

At this point you might be wondering, "What are you all hot and bothered about? The polls show that voters will choose a Democrat over a Republican?" If only it was that easy. You see, those same polls also asked people about how they would vote on specific pairings of candidates, and the results were very different. Again, a generic Democrat defeated a generic Republican 51% to 27% and 49% to 38% in the two polls. However, when Clinton was matched up against Giuliani, he won in both polls, 49% to 46% and 49% to 44%. Obama did a bit better against Giuliani (winning in one poll 52% to 42% while losing in the other by a 49% to 45% margin), but still not well enough to make a Democratic voter confident. Clinton did a drop better against Fred Thompson, tying him in one poll (46% apiece) and edging him in the other (48% to 45%), while Obama beat Thompson handily in both surveys, 51% to 40% and 56% to 35%.

Of course, as I said earlier, it's very early to read too much into specific numbers. But I do think it's fair at this point to look at the bigger picture, including the history of presidential elections and the poll numbers given the current climate, and note some trends or issues that could be troubling down the road. NBC political director Chuck Todd said on "Meet the Press" that the numbers showed that white male independents just won't vote for Clinton. He said that it could change in the future, but right now, they're not ready to consider her. I'm not sure they ever will.

I think the time is now for Democrats to start evaluating the race with one question in mind: Which candidate has the best chance of winning the general election in November 2008. Everything else is secondary. The argument between Obama and Clinton on their positions on talking to the leaders of hostile countries could not be less the point. The amoeba-sized difference in their views is meaningless if they are both still sitting in the senate in January 2009.

When considering who can win, Clinton has a lot going against her, considering the polls and her status as a Blue State senator. With that in mind, Democrats need to think long and hard before sending her into the 2008 race. Even without a windsurfing trip, she may not stand a chance. And if she gets the nomination and loses to Romney or Giuliani, you can add another election to the list where a senator was not elected to the White House. That is a piece of history Democrats should not want to repeat.