Negative Influence

We usually do a digest of all the juicy data from the exit polls on primary nights. But tonight one datum matters most: When voters made up their mind, and who they voted for once they did. Since Hillary Clinton went sort-of negative on Barack Obama in the past week, she should see the fruits of her labor among voters who decided in the past seven days. Instead, she got sour grapes.  

Clinton’s negative attacks were designed to prevent Obama from capitalizing on any momentum he gained from eight consecutive wins on Feb. 9 and 12. But they didn’t work. According to CNN’s exit polls , 27 percent of Democratic voters made up their minds since the Potomac primary one week ago, and the majority of them—58 percent—favored Obama. Compare that to the 26 percent who made up their minds in “the past month” (but also, assumedly, before the past week). They favored Obama 66 percent to 31 percent for Clinton.

The eight-point differential between the two blocs is the metric of interest. Exit polls are notoriously flimsy, but it’s safe to assume that some of that eight-point drop is because of Clinton’s debate-baiting ads and plagiarism accusations . But it probably amounted to only a 2 percent decline in the overall vote tally. That won’t even a form a ripple in the nomination ocean—especially when delegates are allotted proportionally.  

Tonight, Clinton’s campaign learned that slightly negative attacks aren’t enough to derail Obamamentum . And if it didn’t stop him pre-Wisconsin, it sure as hell isn’t going to stop him afterward. Clinton tried being nice in the lead-up to Super Tuesday—it didn’t work. Leading up to tonight, Clinton tried being stern in the lead up to Wisconsin—and it still didn’t work. The only option left is all-out negativity.

That’s not a tasty choice. An eight-point hit among 27 percent of voters isn’t enough of an impact for Clinton to justify tearing down the (gulp) likely Democratic nominee and ruining her own political legacy. If Clinton really thrashes Obama over the next two weeks, she may drain enough support to win Ohio and Texas, and therefore the nomination. But in the meantime she’ll probably weaken her own chances in the general election. Swing voters don’t like negative politicians—especially those who take down members of their own party. And last we checked, swing voters like John McCain.