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The Wishy-Washy, Squishy-Squashy Pseudoscience of Electability

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Similarly, some polls find that people come up with other reasons for why they or their friends won’t vote for Obama—reasons that could be proxies for race. For instance, a CBS News poll in August found that 38 percent of voters believe Obama’s name (and its unfortunate resonance with the world’s most famous terrorist) could prevent people from voting for him. And Obama’s claim that his race will actually benefit him in the South is far-fetched—in 2004, for instance, African-Americans made up 34 percent of the voters in Mississippi—just a smidgen under their 37 percent share of the state’s population—and Kerry still lost there by twenty points.

While Obama says being black will help him in the South, John Edwards argues that being southern will help him everywhere. As he mused in an interview with Time this summer, “It’s simple geography. Ask Middle Americans: You’ve got three Democratic candidates. One’s from New York, one’s from Chicago, and one’s from rural North Carolina. Who do you think is most like you?” Which, Edwards claims, gives him a certain amount of ideological wiggle room, as he explained in the same interview: “I think most journalists would agree that I’m the most progressive, Senator Obama next, and Senator Clinton closest to the center. But I’d be willing to bet that if you ask most Americans the same question, they’d reverse it.”

And there is some polling data to back up Edwards’s claim. A November survey by Rasmussen Reports found that while 51 percent of voters perceive Clinton as liberal and 44 percent view Obama this way, only 38 percent attach the L-word to Edwards. What’s more, 13 percent actually view Edwards as conservative, with only 9 percent using that term to describe Clinton and 6 for Obama. These perceptions, the Edwards campaign argues, make him a more formidable candidate than Clinton or Obama in swing states and among downscale voters—and thus make him more electable. “If you look at the people who used to vote Democrat but no longer vote Democrat, John Edwards does particularly well,” says Edwards’s pollster, Harrison Hickman. “He does well with working-class people, and that gives him an advantage in states with large numbers of what used to be called Reagan Democrats—states like Ohio.”

But Edwards’s advantage in, say, Ohio isn’t that clear-cut— at least not where it matters most. While SurveyUSA in September found him winning the state by twenty points in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with Romney, he lost in a head-to-head matchup with Giuliani by one point. Which, the same poll found, is the same lead Rudy enjoys over Hillary in the state. In other words, when it comes to taking on the Republican front-runner in a key battleground state, Edwards does no better than the candidate Edwards hopes to bring down with his electability argument.

And then there is Hillary. As the front-runner, she’s less inclined than her competitors to make many explicit claims about electability. Just a couple of months ago, her husband dismissed “this electability thing” as a “canard [that] doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.” But since her electability has become the fundamental question of the 2008 race, it has to be examined. And, surprisingly, the case for Hillary’s electability turns out to be pretty strong.

First, her gender doesn’t seem to be much of an impediment—and may even be an advantage. Although the number of Americans who said they had no reservations about voting for a female presidential candidate dipped in the year after the 9/11 attacks—from about 95 percent to 65 percent—it has returned to close to its previous level, with a February USA Today/Gallup poll finding 88 percent of Americans willing to put a woman in the White House. And support for Hillary among women is quite strong. While a Gallup analysis of polling data between 2005 and 2007 found that men were almost evenly divided in their opinion of Hillary—with 49 percent rating her unfavorably and 47 percent rating her favorably—women were far more positive about her: 59 percent rated Hillary favorably and only 36 percent unfavorably. That gender gap could prove decisive for Clinton. As Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, notes, “Women were 54 percent of voters in the last election. It wouldn’t be the question of electing a minority but a majority.”

Second, even Hillary’s high unfavorability numbers may not serve as that much of an impediment in a general election. For one thing, in today’s polarized political environment, high unfavorables are the likely fate for either party’s nominee: Hillary, by dint of the fact that she’s been in the national spotlight for fifteen years and has been subjected to political attacks for just as long, merely has a head start on the other Democratic candidates in terms of amassing those unfavorables. “She starts out where any other nominee is going to get,” says a Democratic pollster. “Anyone who gets the nomination is going to be the same kind of lightning rod.”


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