In the past six months, much has happened in the contest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, but its central dynamic has gone largely unnoticed: Hillary has been dropping and Gore has been moving up. According to the latest Fox News poll, Hillary lost almost half of her lead over Gore between March and August.
In March, Hillary was getting 42 percent of the Democratic Primary field but by Fox’s August 30th survey, she had fallen to only 33 percent of the vote. Gore weighed in at 12 percent in March and rose to 15 percent by the end of last month. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) each rose by two points, to 13 and 11 percent, respectively.
Most ominously for Hillary, the undecided percentage rose from 10 percent to 18 percent. Even those who had nobody else to vote for had accumulated such doubts about the New York senator that they described themselves as undecided. In this period well before active campaigning, it is unusual for a frontrunner to drop so precipitously without a major scandal or the entry of a new candidate. So why has Hillary dropped?
Democrats are desperate for victory. They seem determined to conduct their nominating process as if it were an audition for the leading role in November. Their newfound pragmatism, born of frustration in trying to defeat George W. Bush, has made electability the sine qua non of the Democratic primaries. And Hillary is flunking the test.
Republican criticisms of her seem to be winning new converts among Democratic primary voters. It is not that liberals are embracing the GOP contention that she is ethically challenged, ultraliberal and Nixonian in her tactics. But a kind of second generation of these criticisms is finding its mark in convincing Democrats that Hillary is too polarizing to be elected.
But a deeper, more fundamental division also seems to be undermining Hillary’s cause: a widening division between the isolationist and internationalist wings of the Democratic Party. With the polarization of public opinion over the war in Iraq, the gap between the anti-Vietnam new left and the Democratic Leadership Council New Democrats is yawning wide. The new left is largely well-educated, eastern and baby-boomer while the new Democrats are more conservative, values-oriented and socially populist.
Hillary and Bill are irretrievably on the New Democratic side of the divide. Her vote for the war, her consciousness of the tough-guy role a woman must play to win and the legacy of her husband’s military interventions abroad put her there to stay. But Al Gore has no such inhibitions. He can play the left on the Iraq war with impunity, having been opposed from day one.
We would be wrong to underestimate the impact of Ned Lamont’s primary victory over Joe Lieberman on Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. As Eugene McCarthy did in 1968 when he challenged President Johnson over the war, Lamont has created a sense that the Democratic primary is the venue to oppose the war and punish those who supported it. Hillary, as a result, suddenly looks very vulnerable.
The former first lady also faces high negatives over a sense that she flip-flops on key issues. Reminiscent of the negatives that surrounded her husband, her flirtation with pro-lifers on abortion, anti-flag burners in Congress and pro-defense spending hawks on the Armed Services Committee has left a legacy that the woman who went down with the ship on healthcare reform never used to have: that of an opportunist.
In the Fox News poll, the Gore, Kerry, Edwards, Warner and Bayh vote totals 43 percent. So the un-Hillary candidates defeat Hillary 43–33. But even more significant is the switch to undecided among Democratic primary voters. Hillary, in a sense, is an incumbent, and undecideds do not augur well for her candidacy. It is hard to imagine Kerry recovering from his 2004 negatives, and Edwards will have difficulty staying in the limelight. But it is not too difficult to imagine Gore giving Clinton the fight of her life.
The 1992 and 1996 bumper sticker may split up in 2008!