I know that Senator Obama is the front-runner. But I remain concerned about his electability. I find him inspirational, attractive, articulate and very intelligent. He has run an outstanding campaign. Close friends are ardently for him. I like him.
But recent polling data confirms for me, despite all the horde of punditry proclaiming him a "phenom" with stronger general electorate appeal than Senator Clinton, that Senator Obama is very vulnerable in the general election and less likely to defeat Senator McCain than Senator Clinton. And so to all Democrats - especially those in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania - I offer these facts and these arguments to take another look before if you believe Senator Obama is the stronger general election candidate.
CNN's Bill Schneider recently looked at the data showing Senator Obama as leading Senator Clinton in most Democratic national polls for the first time. Primarily, he said, this was because Democrats now see Senator Obama as more likely to defeat Senator McCain.
But the polling data do not consistently support this overwhelming Democratic voter and punditry perception.
In fact, many recent national polls show very little difference in head-to-head contests against Senator McCain between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. Some show Senator Obama running slightly ahead of Senator McCain, with Senator Clinton close or in a dead heat. Recently, a front page story in USA Today showed Senator Obama and Senator Clinton in a statistical dead heat with Senator McCain, i.e., while Senator Obama was slightly ahead of Senator McCain and Senator Clinton slightly behind numerically, both were within the +/- 3% margin of error.
But how can this be? Hasn't Senator Obama usually shown more support among independents and Republicans, both in the national polls and those states with open primaries? The answer is yes - but once you look beneath those data, you will see serious reasons to doubt whether that pattern will hold by the time of the November 2008 general election.
First, recent national data shows the surprising, even shocking, fact that Senator Obama runs weaker among Democrats vs. Senator McCain than does Senator Clinton. For example, in the last three national Gallup polls (January, early February and late February,) Senator McCain wins more Democrats in a race against Senator Obama than he does in a race against Senator Clinton - i.e., Senator McCain wins an average of 17%-19% of Democrats against Senator Obama, but only 10%-12-% average Democrats running against Senator Clinton.
And why is that? Here could be a key reason: According to a recent Washington Post/ABC survey, about 4 out of 10 primary voting Democrats in Ohio and Texas say that Barack Obama "does not have the kind of experience" necessary to "serve as president." This compares to Senator Clinton, who is seen by most voters as having superior experience to be president as compared to Senator Obama, even by his own supporters.
This should be an extraordinary and worrisome piece of data for all Democrats who most of all want to win back the White House in 2008. Imagine: if 40% of self-identified voters planning to participate in the Ohio and Texas Democratic primaries feel that way, then no wonder that Gallup's recent January and February polls show nearly one-out-of five Democrats supporting Senator McCain against Senator Obama. And those defections could well be indicators of similar defections come next November among moderate and conservative "Reagan Democrats" who did not participate in the low-turn out Democratic primaries and caucuses, as well as moderate and conservative Independents and Republicans.
But what about data showing that Independents and Republicans have shown greater preference for Senator Obama than Senator Clinton?
The answer is, Senator Obama remains is virtually unknown to most voters outside of the small percentage of registered voters who participated in all the Democratic primaries and caucuses. (A recent group of Obama young supporters was asked by MSNBC pollster to name a single accomplishment of Obama and after some uncomfortable silence, one supporter said, "he's run a great campaign.") In his own book, The Audacity of Hope, Senator Obama himself (I am writing from memory, so I hope my paraphrase is correct) admits that he is relatively unknown to most Americans - in effect a blank slate.
No one disagrees that Senator Clinton is well-known and that she has sustained all the negative attacks the Republicans can muster and, therefore, her "negatives" with general election voters cannot go much higher. But regarding Senator Obama, the reverse is also hard to deny: his potential for his negatives getting higher over the course of the general election campaign is much greater than Senator Clinton's, especially when Senator McCain and the Republicans fill in the "blank" to currently unknowing voters with facts about Senator Obama's consistently liberal voting record (which I like!) and his absence of foreign policy and national security experience.
What about the change issue?
Conventional wisdom says Sen. Obama is seen as the change agent and not Sen. Clinton (a very strange CW for me, given that Senator Clinton could become the first woman president and has proposed major social and economic programs that constitute substantial change in the future--such as universal health care and getting out of Iraq).
But on the issue of who is the change agent, current data also defies the punditry's CW: According to the recent Washington Post/ABC poll found, 69% of Ohio primary Democrats and 67% of Texas Democrats say Senator Clinton would "do enough to bring change to Washington," including many Obama voters.
Thus Senator Clinton is seen as the candidate both of change and of having the experience to make it happen. That is what the polls show - even the ones showing Senator Obama ahead. Senator Obama is seen as the candidate of change - but not of experience, including among any Democrats.
That is why I believe that by the end of the general election campaign, comparing the positions of Senators Obama vs. Senator Clinton --
-- when the comparison is between two equally known candidates, not a well-known one vs. a blank-slate one -- Senator Clinton will clearly be the stronger candidate against Senator McCain.
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I still believe Senator Clinton can be the nominee - even if she wins Ohio and Pennsylvania but not Texas. Because she will have carried all the major states a Democrat must win, especially Ohio, and also such border and winnable red states and marginal states, such as Tennessee, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona. And Senator Obama's victories in the small-turn out red states such as Kansas, Idaho, North Dakota and Utah, are not likely to be replicated in the general election.
If Senator Obama is the nominee I hope I am wrong about the following worry about his electability - but as of now I have it big time.
I have this déjà vu sensation.
I remember when Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis, whom I loved and strongly supported in the primaries and general election in 1988, was seen after the Democratic convention as a flinty fiscal conservative with appeal to Republicans and moderates and to "red" states (before they were called "red" states). He was ahead of Vice President Bush by 18% after the July 1988 Democratic Convention. But he too was not well known to most general election voters.
But then the Republican attack machine began - the same one that Hillary Clinton has sustained and survived, the same one Senator Obama has never experienced. And we all know the unfortunate result - a landslide victory by George H.W. Bush.
This also feels a lot like the Ned Lamont campaign for U.S. Senator in Connecticut in 2006.
Lamont defeated Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary in August of 2006, primarily due to Lieberman's support for the Iraq war. Lamont defeated Lieberman by just four points, despite Lieberman's unpopular war position, but no matter. Lamont and his campaign were described by the national media in much the same way as Senator Obama's campaign - as an unstoppable grassroots phenom riding the wave of euphoria on the Net-roots. Many major Democrats endorsed and campaigned for him, including Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman's long-time friend and Connecticut colleague, Senator Chris Dodd, who even cut a commercial for Lamont.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the general election.
The first set of polls after the primary had Lieberman ahead - an early reminder that the general electorate was not the same as the Democratic primary/caucus electorate. Ned Lamont was a blank slate who most non-Democratic primary voters -- meaning a substantial majority of the general electorate who did not vote in the Democratic primary -- did not know. When they learned more about him, they decided he was inexperienced and more liberal than themselves by a good margin. The result: Joe Lieberman, running as an independent moderate Democrat, won by 10%.
How often do we Democrats have to re-learn the lesson that the primary/caucus electorate, heavily depending on liberal activists (a description that I still apply to myself) turning out in low-turn out elections, is not the same as the general electorate.
Even supporters of Senator Obama who disagree with me --and I hope we can respect each other and agree we have two great and historic candidates to run against John McCain - should ask themselves why so many Democrats are already saying in the Gallup polls that they are for Senator McCain -- and whether their numbers will grow, and the Obama supporters among independents and Republicans will drop, the more the "blank slate" is filled in.
Take another look at the electability question. Let your head, not your heart, rule -- Senator Clinton has taken all the shots; she has the experience to make change happen; she is less vulnerable to the Republican attack machine. She will defeat John McCain. I worry that Senator Obama may not.