With each day that goes by, I am more convinced that if the Democrats have a prayer of winning the general presidential election in November, they must nominate Barack Obama. While beating John McCain, a candidate perceived as moderate by a good amount of the electorate, will be a difficult task, the more I examine the state-by-state statistics, the more clear it seems that Hillary Clinton cannot win in November.
There is a basic, two-part formula for winning presidential elections: Get out your base, and win over the independents. Assuming the candidate is John McCain, he will have a great deal of trouble turning out the Republican base. Essentially, McCain has found his way to the nomination by getting votes from moderates and, in states that allow open voting, independents, while a host of other candidates, down the stretch Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, divided up the conservative base. He has yet to be embraced by the right wing of the party, and he has been the target of traditional conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
McCain’s weakness on his flank presents an opening for the Democrats. Except, if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, her existence in the race will rally conservatives to show up and vote to keep her out of office. In other words, Clinton’s appearance on the ballot will accomplish what McCain cannot do on his own – get conservatives to come out in force and vote for him. In fact, a CQPolitics.com article on Monday suggested that many Republicans in Virginia, which held an open primary on Tuesday, considered participating in the Democratic race so they could cast their vote for Hillary Clinton, not because they liked her, but because they wanted to run against her in November.
Peter Wehner, a former deputy to Karl Rove in the Bush White House, pointed out in a recent article in the New Yorker that “Hillary Clinton would provide a ‘much more target-rich environment’ than Obama,” since Republicans did not have to find any new scandals, but could just remind voters of old ones.
Obama, on the other hand, would not provide as much of an incentive to conservatives. Wehner opined: “He would be much more difficult for Republicans to handle. He has much more breakout potential.” Wehner thought the only thing that Republicans could exploit about Obama was that he was liberal, but even this arch conservative said, “I find him to be very impressive.”
I really don’t know why Republicans despise Hillary Clinton so much, and I don’t think it’s rational or fair. But none of that matters if the effect of her candidacy will be to inspire right-wingers to raise money and vote in large numbers for John McCain.
On the Democratic side, statistics show that Democrats have been happy with their choices in the presidential race, so there is no reason to think that Obama would be any less capable than Clinton of turning out the base of the party in November. You can even make an argument that Obama can do a better job in this area. After the brutal South Carolina race, many African Americans were angry with the comments Hillary Clinton made about President Lyndon Johnson’s role signing the Civil Rights Act, feeling as though she was disrespectful to Dr. Martin Luther King. Again, you can question whether the scrutiny of her is fair, but the reality is, come November, if Clinton is the candidate, African Americans may not come out in force for Clinton the way they would for Obama (or they would have for Clinton had the South Carolina race flap never occurred). The primary and caucus results bear this point out, as Clinton has been able to garner only a small percentage of the African-American vote in virtually every state.
On the issue of independents, whoever gets the Democratic nomination will face a Herculean task, considering he or she will be facing McCain, an opponent who has relied on these non-aligned voters to get to the front-running place he holds today. The question becomes, Who is in a better position to contest McCain for these votes, Clinton or Obama? The primary and caucus results suggest Obama would hold the advantage over his rival.
Like McCain, Obama’s success in the Democratic race so far has been helped greatly by independents. In race after race, he has consistently beaten Clinton in this group. For example, in yesterday’s Virginia primary, Obama beat Clinton by a margin of 64 percent to 35 percent, but his victory was even larger with registered independents, who chose Obama by a 69 percent to 30 percent margin. (All primary data in this piece comes from CNN's election center.)
Even in states that Clinton has carried, Obama has beaten her amongst independents. In New Hampshire, Clinton narrowly prevailed by two percentage points (39 to 37), but independents solidly chose Obama, 41 percent to 31 percent. Similarly, in California, Clinton enjoyed a comfortable ten-point victory, but amongst independents, Obama far outpaced Clinton, 58 percent to 34 percent.
Obama has also been successful in coaxing young and first-time voters to the polls to support him. For example, in Iowa, facing seven opponents, Obama managed to win 41 percent of all first-time voters. In New Hampshire, he got 47 percent of the newbies.
So if Clinton will help McCain get out the conservative base of the Republican party more than Obama, Obama and Clinton can, at least, equally turn out Democrats, and Obama can do a better job with independents than Clinton, then it would seem that Obama would be the better bet to go against McCain in November.
I’d argue, though, that the discussion cannot end here, because of the odd nature of American presidential elections, which, as any Gore supporter can tell you, is not based on the popular vote, but on a state-by-state, winner-take-all, electoral college. Because of this set-up, by my calculation, there are 34 states whose elections will be meaningless in November, since no matter who the nominees are, the results are predetermined. Republicans are all but sure to win 21 states (east to west, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Alaska). Meanwhile, the Democrats are virtually certain to get the electoral votes from 13 states (in the east, moving north to south, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland; Illinois; and, in the west, from north to south, Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii).
That leaves only 16 states where votes really matter. I see this group in three categories: States that lean red, those that lean blue, and those that are genuine toss-ups. And when you look at the results of the 2004 election and the 2008 primaries, Obama is better equipped to succeed in a majority of these 16 states.
Let’s start with three states that are the only ones I see as truly up in the air: Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada. In 2004, President Bush edged John Kerry in Iowa by the slightest of margins (746,600 to 733,102). In the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, McCain was a non-factor, finishing tied for third, well off the pace. While McCain, as the Republican nominee, will pick up some support, this state would certainly seem to be an opening for Democrats. Not only did Obama handily win the Democratic caucuses in Iowa (with 38 percent of the vote), Clinton finished third. Obama also dominated amongst independents (41 percent for Obama, 17 percent for Clinton) and first-time voters (41 percent for Obama). In Iowa, advantage Obama.
New Mexico was also a state in 2004 with a razor-sharp margin of victory for Bush (372,513 to 364,240), giving the Democrats an opening in 2008. In a tight primary, Clinton edged Obama by just over a thousand votes. But the primary was open only to registered Democrats, and Obama trounced Clinton, 65 percent to 29 percent, among voters who identified themselves as independents. With the Republican primary not until June (and the race could be long over by then), there are no numbers to go on, but as McCain is a popular senator in a neighboring state, it would seem that the Democrats will need all the independents they can get in November. And, again, the advantage in this area goes to Obama.
Finally, in Nevada, while Bush beat Kerry by about 21,000 votes (representing just under three percentage points), there is an opening for the Democrats in a state that has been trending blue. McCain managed only 13 percent of the vote in the Republican caucuses, finishing behind both Romney and Ron Paul. Clinton beat Obama in Nevada, 51 percent to 45 percent, but the caucuses were only open to registered Democrats. Among moderates, again, Obama did better, falling only three percentage points short of Clinton. Independents were not accounted for in the caucuses, so there is no measurable data with which to document Obama’s strength in this group, except that he has consistently outdrawn Clinton with independents in other states. While Clinton may actually be in a position to beat McCain here in November, when you factor in independents, I’d still take Obama, but I admit it’s kind of a toss-up.
So, in these three critical states, Obama has a clear edge in two of them, while the third can be said to be too close to call.
As for states that are in play but lean to the Republicans (in my mind, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia), Obama has a clear edge in most cases, especially the more winnable races. In Colorado, where McCain got pounded by Romney (60 percent to 19 percent), Obama trounced Clinton (67 percent to 32 percent). Obama also enjoys an advantage in Missouri, where he edged Clinton by one percentage point, but, as importantly, dominated the independent vote (67 percent to 30 percent). In Virginia, as I noted, Obama not only won the primary going away, but he polled even more strongly with independents. Clinton would have an edge in Florida (with its large senior citizen population, a group that she traditionally does well with) and Arkansas (where she was the first lady for more than 10 years), but these are states that Bush carried in both 2000 and 2004 and may be beyond the Democrats’ reach in 2008. Time will tell what the primary voters will do in West Virginia and delegate-rich Ohio.
You can make an argument that in the states that are in play but lean to the Democrats (by my estimation, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), the comparison is less important, since either of the candidates would stand a good chance of sweeping them all. John Kerry won all of these states in 2004, and Al Gore carried all of them except New Hampshire in 2000. But Obama is strong in the state I’m most concerned about, Minnesota, where Kerry beat Bush by just under 100,000 votes (less than four percentage points). McCain is viewed as more moderate than Bush, so I’m sure the GOP is eyeing Minnesota as one they can steal, even if McCain fell badly to Romney in the Republican caucuses. Democrats should take note that Obama more than doubled Clinton’s numbers in the Democratic caucus, enjoying a 67 percent to 32 percent margin of victory.
Obama also handily beat Clinton in the Maine caucuses (59 percent to 40 percent), despite pre-election predications that it would be a strong state for her, and, as I wrote earlier, despite losing to Clinton by two points in a multi-candidate race in New Hampshire, Obama dominated with independent and first-time voters and would be in a stronger position to take on McCain. Clinton would be stronger in Michigan, based on her strength with blue collar workers (Michigan had its delegates stripped by the Democratic National Committee, and Obama did not take part in the state’s primary), but of the states in this group that have contested primaries or caucuses so far, it’s her lone bright spot in this debate.
So in the 16 states that will ultimately choose the next president, Obama would seem to be in a more advantageous position than Clinton in a majority of them. To be clear, I’m not saying that Obama will win in November if he gets the nomination. I’m only saying that of the two remaining Democratic contenders, he is in a better position to take on John McCain.
Democrats have let too many opportunities to take control of the White House slip through their fingers, whether it was by choosing an unelectable candidate (John Kerry, a wealthy, stiff, patrician, liberal, non-combative, sitting U.S. senator from Massachusetts), or having a seemingly electable candidate run a horrendous campaign (Al Gore, hiding from his role as vice president in a popular and successful administration and behaving like some kind of odd non-human cyborg in public, culminating with his red-faced, where-was-he-going wander towards an amused George Bush’s side of the stage during a nationally televised debate; you can watch it here). It’s time to put aside the question of which candidate is better and focus on which of the two aspirants can win. (I can make an argument as to why Obama is actually a better candidate, regardless of electabilty, but I’ll leave that to another day.)
When I look at the available evidence, I see only one correct answer to who has the best opportunity for winning the general election: Barack Obama. Lets hope Democratic voters in the last few primary states, especially Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, see it, too. If they don’t, I fear that we’ll have four more years of Republicans in the White House. I’m not sure the country can stand such a result.