Hillary's Compelling Argument

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Mar 01, 2008 5:25 PM


For a long time I have believed that Hillary Clinton's electability arguments were nothing more than sophistry.  After all, I reasoned, John McCain would have an easier time defeating Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama for two reasons:  1. Hillary would actually turn-out the conservative base to defeat her, and 2. She would lose independent and swing voters to McCain.

However, I am now beginning to believe Hillary Clinton actually has a legitimate argument to make to the Democratic Super Delegates -- that she is, in fact, the best chance the Democrats have to elect a president this year.

Let me explain ...

The conventional wisdom that Obama is tougher to defeat is based on a false premise; that national popularity matters.  In fact, rather than having a national General Election where national popularity might matter, we instead have fifty individual state elections in November.  This, of course, is common knowledge, and not in any way a new or sophisticated argument.  Still, it is profound in the sense that it is so often overlooked by those doing political analysis.  How often are we given national polling numbers by the media to prove, for example, that Barack Obama would beat John McCain?  Of course, these national polls are completely irrelevant, but they give them to us anyway.

This is where Hillary's argument comes in.

Though Obama is, no doubt, more popular, Hillary has a legitimate argument to make that when the electoral map comes into play, she can actually win states that Obama cannot win.

While it is certainly true that Barack Obama has won many more states than Hillary, it is important to examine the "quality" of the states he is winning.  For example, Obama won North Dakota, a state with few delegates that will be easily won by John McCain, in any event.  It sounds harsh to say this, but it doesn't really matter how popular Obama is in any Red State.  He could have ten times more supporters in Alabama than Hillary, and it won't matter because Republicans are going to win that state anyway.  What matters are the big swing-states.

Obama has also excelled at state caucuses.  One example of this is his victory in Maine (where fewer than 5,000 Democrats cast ballots). 

Conversely, Hillary Clinton has done well in states that have a lot of delegates, such as California -- as well as Michigan and Florida (both large swing-states where delegates won't even be seated at the Democratic convention).

You may be thinking that the Democrats have such an advantage right now that it simply does not matter whether the nominee is Obama or Hillary.  Again, this would be true if there were a national election. 

But, as John Fund recently described, when you start actually taking the time to look at the electoral map, John McCain looks a lot better.  McCain probably wins every state Bush won in 2004, and he also puts other states in play.  This, of course, buttresses Hillary's argument:

The assumption has been that Democrats have an advantage because they can supposedly win every state John Kerry took in 2004 plus Ohio, which has fallen on hard economic times and seen its state Republican Party discredited. That would give the Democratic nominee at least 272 electoral votes.

But Mr. McCain's rise to the GOP nomination throws that calculation out the window. He is the only potential GOP candidate who is clearly positioned to keep the basic red-blue template of how each state voted in 2004 intact and then be able to move into blue territory.

Let's assume that Ohio goes to either Mr. Obama or Ms. Clinton. It's at least as likely that Mr. McCain could carry New Hampshire. The Granite State went only narrowly to Mr. Kerry, a senator from a neighboring state, and Mr. McCain has unique advantages there. New Hampshire elections are determined by how that state's fiercely independent voters go, and Mr. McCain has won over many of them in both the 2000 and 2008 GOP primaries. He spent 47 days in New Hampshire before this year's primary and is well-known in the state. If Mr. McCain lost Ohio but carried New Hampshire and all the other states Mr. Bush took in 2004, he would win, 270-268.

As you can see, this election will be close (electorally speaking, of course).  The Democrats will need to win every state they possibly can, and this will be Hillary's argument to the Super Delegates. 

It is important to note that Hillary has been endorsed by the Democratic governors of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio -- because they presumably believe that Hillary will win their states -- and that Obama will not. 

The reason for this belief is unclear, but Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Hillarly votary, has gone so far as to imply that latent racism may hurt Obama in his state (James Carville has said Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between).  In fact, Gov. Rendell reportedly told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"You've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."
Aside from possible latent racism (as Rendell implied), it's also reasonable to assume that the voters in these "blue collar" states may be less inclined to vote for Obama because he appears to be a young, inexperienced, academic.  Regardless, when you begin looking at the electoral map, instead of national popularity, Hillary's argument makes a lot more sense.

Super Delegates may ultimately face a very difficult choice.  They may determine that only Hillary can win in 2008.  At the same time, they may realize that snubbing Obama -- after he has received the most popular support -- would be a devastating blow that would ultimately tear their coalition apart.

This, of course, is an "inside baseball" argument that Hillary could never use to persuade voters.  It is, however, an argument she will use to attempt to persuade Super Delegates.  (I might add that this is precisely the sort of argument that Super Delegates were intended to consider when making their decisions.)

It may be a moot point, though.  If Hillary loses both Texas and Ohio on Tuesday, none of this will matter, anyway.  But if she wins Ohio -- and then Pennsylvania -- even though she will be way down in the popular delegate count -- Hillary will have a legitimately good argument to make to the Super Delegates.

And then, they will have a big, big choice to make ...