Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Hampshire Hurts the Democrats Yet Again

Why does the State of New Hampshire hate Democrats?

Yes, I know the state has a Democratic governor, both of its U.S. House of Representatives districts sent Democrats to Congress in 2006, and John Kerry carried the state in 2004.

But New Hampshire is like the guy you will hang out with sometimes, but you know that if the chips are down, he will be on the first bus to Not-My-Problemsville. It all began in 2000, when New Hampshire was the only Northeast state to vote for George W. Bush. Yes, it was only four electoral votes, but had those four votes gone to Vice President Al Gore, the whole Florida scandal would have been irrelevant, since Gore would have won by a 270-267 margin.

There would have been no Iraq war, no John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the U.S. Supreme Court, and no Alberto "I Do Not Recall" Gonzalez in the Justice Department. New Orleans may have been properly taken care of in the critical days after Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. may very well have kept the pressure on Al-Qeada and the Taliban in Afghanistan. We may have even gotten Osama bin Laden when he was pinned down at Tora Bora. We also wouldn't have had secret energy policy summits with Enron, unauthorized warrantless wiretaps, and human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And, most importantly, the U.S. wouldn't be a country that tortures people. But I digress.

No, New Hampshire gave its four measly votes to Bush, and the 2000s took a very dark turn.

Again, you might say, "New Hampshire has changed! Look at 2004! Look at 2006!" But again, it's easy to be a friend when there isn't much at stake. Yesterday, in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, nothing short of the future of the U.S. was on the line. And where was New Hampshire? Where it always is, running as far away as possible from helping the Democrats.

Okay, admittedly, I have taken this whole "New Hampshire hates the Democrats" game way too far, but it seems quite likely that the results in yesterday's primaries in New Hampshire (victories for Hillary Clinton and John McCain) were a crushing blow to anyone that would like to see a Democrat sworn into office in January 2009.

There were two things Democrats should have been rooting for in yesterday's election: Losses for Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Why? Because in my humble opinion (backed up by poll numbers and history), of the eight candidates with a somewhat realistic chance of getting their parties' nominations going into the New Hampshire primary (Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards on the Democratic side, and McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson on the GOP side), McCain is the most electable, and Clinton is the second least electable (ahead of only Huckabee).

To be clear, I am not addressing the merits of any of the candidates, and I have written twice, on July 31, 2007 and November 27, 2007, about my belief that while I admire Hillary Clinton, I think she is not electable.

As I wrote in both articles, Clinton has two major problems winning in the general election. First, she is a divisive candidate with high disapproval ratings and painfully few voters who are undecided about her. Simply put, there is a huge pool of independents and Republicans who will never, ever, ever vote for Hillary Clinton. I'm not saying it's fair, I'm only saying it's true. Second, since 1964, no U.S. senator has been elected president, and no Democrat from a blue state has won, either. Clinton is both. (If McCain gets the nomination, it eliminates the senator issue, since both candidates would hold that office, but McCain is from a red state.)

The conventional thinking before New Hampshire was that if Obama won as polls indicated he would, it would be very difficult for the African-American voters in South Carolina (who make up about half of the Democrats in that state) to support Clinton, for fear of standing in the way of the historic rise of the first black major party candidate (and, possibly, the first black president). A win for Obama in South Carolina would have put Clinton's campaign on life support.

On the McCain side, of all of the Republicans, he seems to be the most dangerous opponent in the general election. He is perceived to be both moderate and a straight-talker, which makes him popular with independents. McCain's problem has been getting conservatives to vote for him, which led to his demise in 2000 in South Carolina and beyond after his big win in New Hampshire. This year, though, there is no George W. Bush waiting to pick off McCain. Huckabee and Thompson, the two candidates who can run on a conservative record, have baggage of their own.

The universal thinking in the political world, and one nearly admitted to by McCain himself, was that if he lost in New Hampshire, a place tailor-made for his independent nature, he was done. He would have lacked any momentum in the moderate (Michigan) and bible-thumping (South Carolina) states to come.

But armed with momentum from New Hampshire, McCain could find himself on the way to the nomination. And if he gets into a general election, his one weakness, conservative voters, becomes far less of a burden, since he is, for most of them, the lesser of two evils when paired with the Democratic nominee, especially if the opponent is Clinton. Clearly, McCain's failure to get religious conservatives excited pales in comparison to the electability problems of a position-shifting Romney or a to-the-right-of-everyone Huckabee. And Giuliani (his personal life, his mixed record, etc.) and Thompson (his perceived indifference and insider D.C. record) bring their own problems to the table, making them less formidable challengers than McCain.

So, if Clinton is unelectable and McCain is the most dangerous GOP candidate in November, New Hampshire provided the Democrats with a nightmare result yesterday.

Polls are so unreliable (if they were, Obama would still be shaking victory confetti out of his clothes today) and so dry, I've saved the poll data to the end. I believe the numbers, while not absolute, make a compelling argument that a Clinton-McCain match-up is the worst possible scenario for the Democrats.

In November, when McCain's campaign had emerged from the depths but had not yet caught fire, the Arizona senator still had the best numbers in head-to-head match-ups with the Democrats. As I cited in my November 27 article, a November 26 Zogby poll had McCain ahead of Clinton 42% to 38%, while trailing Obama 45% to 38%.

Those numbers have only gotten worse for the Clinton. In December, Rasmussen has McCain ahead of Clinton 49% to 43% (December 19-20), Fox News has McCain up 47% to 42% (December 18-19), Zogby has McCain winning 49% to 42% (December 12-14) and CNN has Clinton trailing 50% to 48% (December 6-9). If you like troubling trends, consider that Clinton's best result was in the oldest poll, and her second best result was from a survey done by, of all entities, Fox News.

Meanwhile, Obama does markedly better against McCain, beating him in the Zogby poll (47% to 43%) and tying him in CNN's survey (48% to 48%), with only Fox News having McCain on top (44% to 40%).

(The December polls involving head-to-head match-ups between all the top Democrats and Republicans are compiled in a handy RealClear Politics chart here.)

In general, Obama does better than Clinton against all of the GOP candidates, winning all the polls cited by RealClear against Rudy Giuliani (six by an average of 7.3%), Huckabee (five by an average of 10.4%), Romney (five by an average of 12.2%) and Thompson (three by an average of 12%). In fact, other than the Fox News poll against McCain, Obama wins every poll cited against every Republican candidate (with one tie against McCain).

Meanwhile, Clinton loses in at least one poll against every candidate except for Thompson (who she beats four times with an average margin of 7.2%, lower than Obama's 12% average). In addition to losing in all four surveys to McCain, she falls to Giuliani in two of the six polls, and drops one poll each to Romney and Huckabee. By comparison, where Obama beats Romney and Huckabee by an average of 12.2% and 10.4%, respectively, Clinton can only manage average victories of 4.8% against both of those weaker candidates.

For those in the Edwards camp who still believe their man has a chance at the nomination, he wins two out of three polls with McCain, wins one out of three against Giuliani (with one tie), and wins every other poll against the other top Republicans.

Again, poll numbers are not the be-all, end-all of figuring out what will happen. But when you throw in Clinton's historical problem with high unfavorability ratings and Obama's demonstrated ability in Iowa and New Hampshire (not incidentally, two swing states Democrats would need to win in 2008) to attract independents, it sure does appear that Obama would be a stronger challenger to the GOP in November.

Of course, Clinton could beat any of the Republican contenders head-to-head, and, on the flip side, Obama could lose to any of them. Nobody can claim to be sure what will happen 10 months from now. Obama is, after all, a blue state U.S. senator, just like Clinton. But Obama has built his campaign on the notion of reaching out beyond the confines of the labels of red state and blue state, conservative and liberal, which, theoretically, gives him a better chance of bucking the traditional aversion to Democratic blue staters that the U.S. electorate has shown in presidential elections.

Most of all, Democrats, after crushing defeats in 2000 and 2004 (especially after choosing an eminently unelectable candidate in 2004), should be looking to put the odds in their favor as much as possible. 2008 is not an election for hoping or experimenting. It is a contest in which the party should be looking at all the evidence, all the history, and all the odds, and entrusting the party's nomination to the candidate with the best chance of winning. As we sit here on January 9, 2008, one day after the New Hampshire primaries, it is virtually impossible to make a compelling argument that Hillary Clinton stands a better chance than Barack Obama of beating a Republican in November, especially if it's John McCain. Making the Clinton argument requires a lot of hoping that polls and history can be overcome. Making the Obama argument requires far less speculation.

And this whole debate would be far less important if New Hampshire voters had helped out the Democrats. Life would look much sunnier in Democratic homes right now if Mitt Romney was celebrating a win that could propel him to the nomination, and Barack Obama was steamrolling his way to November, as well. A Romney-Obama match-up would seem to break the Democrats' way (a straight shooter against a flip-flopper ... how well did that match-up work out for John Kerry in 2004?).

Instead, New Hampshire citizens have presented Democrats with a potentially unwinnable race: A war hero Republican who is viewed as maverick, independent, moderate, and straight-shooting against an establishment Democrat with a history of near-50% disapproval ratings and a reputation for taking positions based on poll results.

New Hampshire, what have we Democrats done to make you hate us so much? Wait, by asking that question, I'm afraid Rudy Giuliani will scold me like he did Ron Paul. Never mind.