Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Clinton's Victory in West Virginia Should Have Generated Different Headlines

If an alien landed in the United States last night and turned on CNN and MSNBC, the ET probably would have thought that West Virginia was the center of the country, and that the lady in the pants suit speaking to an adoring audience was close to being the next president. The full-court-press coverage of the West Virginia Democratic primary, complete with CNN's panel of experts that approximately equalled the size of the crowd at a Hannah Montana concert, and MSNBC's deployment of its "A" team of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Tim Russert for the entire evening (What, was John Chancellor's corpse asking for too much money to appear?), gave the night the feel of an important election day.

Only, it wasn't.

The discussion amongst the journalists and pundits centered on whether Hillary Clinton's landslide win over Barack Obama had changed anything in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and whether the results showed that white blue-collar voters won't cast a ballot for Obama.

Isn't that an awful lot to read into an election in a small state where about 330,000 people voted and only 28 delegates were awarded?

Looking back on last night's primary results, contrary to the coverage of CNN and MSNBC, I saw a different set of headlines.

Headline: Clinton Picks Up 12 Delegates
Clinton picked up 12 more delegates than Obama (20 to 8), meaning that Obama's overall pledged delegate lead is now 156 (1600 to 1444, according to CNN) instead of 168, with only 185 or so pledged delegates left to be awarded. So from a purely numerical standpoint, last night's primary result was virtually meaningless. A fact that surely would have shocked our visiting alien.

Headline: Obama Picks Up Two Superdelegates
In fact, after the West Virginia results were announced, two undeclared superdelegates threw their support to Obama. While Clinton's decisive victory made for a nice media story, the party seems to be moving forward under the assumption that short of a major gaffe, the nomination will belong to Obama.

Headline: West Virginia Didn't Hold the Most Important Election Yesterday
If you don't believe that there are bigger issues in play than the Clinton-Obama clash, consider this: In a special election for a U.S. House of Representatives seat yesterday, the Democrat beat the Republican. Oh, wait, I seem to have buried the lead: The district is in northern Mississippi, and the seat had been held by a Republican since 1994. Bush won 60 percent of the vote in the district in 2004, and the Republican strategy in the special election was to tie the Democratic candidate to Obama. This Democratic win follows similar recent victories in special elections for seats formerly held by Republicans in Illinois and Louisiana.

What does this have to do with the Democratic presidential race? Well, consider that the Clinton camp is arguing that the result in West Virginia demonstrated that Clinton is more electable than Obama, because she has been able to get far more of the blue-collar white vote than he has.

But the result in Mississippi illustrated that the question of who will win in this year's general election goes beyond the cults of Clinton and Obama. Sure, white blue-collar voters have seemed to prefer Clinton to Obama, and that played out in West Virginia, where a majority of the voters did not have a college degree. But if Obama is so scary to these voters, why did the Republican strategy fail in Mississippi? Well, I would argue that just because white collar voters like Clinton, it doesn't mean that those same voters will vote for McCain in November if Obama gets the nomination. In fact, a Quinnipiac University poll released today has Obama beating McCain by a larger margin than Clinton (47 to 40 versus 46 to 41).

Clearly, the polls at this stage are virtually meaningless, with so much time remaining before November. But the point remains that just because Clinton is doing well with a demographic now, it doesn't mean that the same demographic won't support Obama in November.

Headline: Clinton's Electability Argument Ignores Two Key Points
The electability argument offered by Clinton and her supporters vociferously all over the television yesterday ignores two issues that, for some reason, are rarely raised by the media.

First of all, the Clinton campaign takes as a given that success in primaries automatically translates to success in general elections. If that point was true, we would be discussing the last eight years of the Gore administration. In 2000, Al Gore won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire, while George W. Bush was trounced by 16 points by John McCain on the Republican side. By Clinton's theory, that would have boded well for Gore in November, but, in actuality, Bush beat Gore by a percentage point in the general election. Had Gore carried New Hampshire's four electoral votes, he would have been sworn into office in January of 2001 instead of Bush.

Primary elections ask voters to choose which candidate they would like to see be the nominee of a party. General elections than ask a very different question, namely which candidate of which party do you want to see hold the job. Think of the issue in terms of the states not in play in November. Sure, McCain easily won the New York Republican primary, and Clinton trounced Obama in the state, but you would be hard-pressed to find a McCain staffer who thinks McCain can beat either Clinton or Obama in New York in November. Similarly, it's very nice that Obama solidly defeated Clinton in Alabama by 12 points while McCain managed only 37 percent of the vote in the state, losing to Mike Huckabee. But I'm sure Obama's staffers aren't counting on any electoral votes from Alabama in the general election.

The second elephant in the room (pun intended, because the Republicans know it all too well) is Clinton's unfavorability ratings. It's Election Strategy 101 that candidates with high negatives in poll numbers have trouble winning elections. One major metric used by the parties to gauge which senate and house seats are vulnerable to challenge is the disapproval rating of the incumbent. And while there is no doubt that Clinton has pockets of fiercely loyal support, when it comes to the national perception, she consistently maintains shockingly high disapproval ratings.

As far back as last July, before the campaign turned competitive and, at times, nasty, Clinton, who at the time was the front runner in all of the national polls by large margins, still had a 48 percent disapproval rating in a Gallup poll. Things have only deteriorated from there. In March, a Gallup poll revealed that only 44 percent of respondents found Clinton "honest and trustworthy" (compared to 63 percent for Obama and 67 percent for McCain) and only 47 percent would "be proud to have [her] as president" (compared to 55 percent for McCain and 57 percent for Obama). By a mid-April Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 39 percent of respondents found Clinton to be "honest and trustworthy," thanks, most likely, to the Clinton campaign's decision to go negative in Pennsylvania.

A study done in early May by the Pew Research Center found that Clinton lagged behind both Obama and McCain in nearly every measurement of integrity and likability. Consider these numbers:

McCain 65 percent
Obama 61 percent
Clinton 42 percent

McCain 26 percent
Obama 32 percent
Clinton 50 percent

Obama 25 percent
McCain 37 percent
Clinton 53 percent

McCain 36 percent
Obama 38 percent
Clinton 55 percent

You might think that these traits should have no bearing on who would make the best president, but, remember, we are talking about Clinton's electability argument here, and there is no doubt that likability and trust are key issues to voters in presidential elections.

The Pew poll showed that Obama's numbers had slipped a bit from March to April (thanks in no small part to the flap over the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I'm sure), but even with Obama's losses, he still had considerably higher ratings than Clinton in every category.

I am not suggesting whether the negative perception of Clinton is fair or not. That's a separate argument. What I am saying is that this view has been consistently held by the electorate, and would have a profound influence on the results in November if she was the Democratic nominee.

To be clear, my point here is not that Obama can win or that Clinton cannot. Again, those are separate arguments. The special election in Mississippi for the house seat shows an opening for both Democrats in November, and the clear liabilities of the two Democrats -- along with the false image of McCain's independence held by many voters -- demonstrate the potential for both Democrats to lose the general election.

My point is simply that when Clinton and her supporters forcefully argue that results like the one in West Virginia last night establish that Clinton is more electable, they are conveniently leaving out the unreliability of primaries as an indicator of general election success and her historic record of low favorability ratings.

Headline: Clinton Gives the Speech in West Virginia That She Should Have Given in Indiana
Olbermann announced on MSNBC last night that Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe said that Clinton's victory speech in West Virginia would be the greatest speech of all time. While I think the work of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are safe from Clinton's challenge, and while her remarks contained some world-class obfuscation regarding the rules and history related to the seating of the delegates from Florida and Michigan, the speech was responsible from the point of view of limiting the damage to the party's chances in November.

Unlike her "this is the tie-breaker, it's on to the White House" delusion-fest after Indiana and North Carolina, Clinton avoided saying a negative word about Obama last night. In fact, she went to great lengths to accomplish three goals, only one of which would negatively impact Obama: She argued to the superdelegates that she was the more electable Democrat, she asked for money, and she went to great lengths to say that the most important thing to her is beating McCain in November, almost as if she was auditioning for a place as Obama's running mate.

While the electability portion of her speech disturbed me a bit (based on the points I made above about the flaws in her arguments), over all, I was very pleased that her statements had taken on a more civil and conciliatory tone. Sure, in an ideal world, Clinton goes on television tonight and tells her supporters that she is stepping aside to give the Democrats the chance to get behind a candidate and beat McCain in November, but they should support Obama with the same gusto with which they supported her, because the two of them are more alike than different. But we know that's not happening. So I'm happy to settle for Clinton continuing in the race, but avoiding the kind of divisive statements about Obama she has been prone to making, like her remark to USA Today on Thursday that "Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again."

If Clinton's post-West Virginia address represents her approach to the remainder of the campaign, that's good news for the Democrats. If her strategy is, as some of the pundits suggested last night, to be the understudy, acting presidential, talking positively, and standing ready, willing and able to serve if Obama trips between now and August, then the next few weeks should not hurt Obama's general election race. Only time will tell if Clinton sticks to this course, though.

Pity our poor alien friend, trying to figure out this mess. If the mob of "experts" on CNN and the Mount Rushmore of NBC political hosts can't get to the real issues, what hope does he or she (or it, if the alien is from a nongendered race) have?