A conversation among Democrats about whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is better positioned to win the general election can get very slippery very fast. The starting point is fixed: the upcoming race against John McCain. But the polls aren’t helpful in showing which candidate has the edge. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama perform the same, statistically, against John McCain. In the latest Gallup poll, Clinton is running two points ahead of McCain, 47 percent to 45 percent, while Obama is running one point behind, 45 percent to 46 percent.
Without clarity in the numbers, the terrain quickly shifts to what it means for Clinton to have won big states versus Obama’s greater collection of little states; or the value of caucuses versus primaries; or states that count versus Michigan and Florida, which don’t. To help us out of the woods, here is a list of the top-three talking points for each of the two democratic candidates.
Clinton talking point No. 1: Clinton consistently performs better with downscale voters, women, Catholics, and older voters. In Pennsylvania, for example, she won among whites without college degrees by 42 points. She won whites earning less than $50,000 by 34 points. These constituencies are crucial to Democratic prospects in the fall, particularly in Pennsylvania, a key swing state, and in Ohio. The corollary to this argument is that Obama is the boutique candidate of young voters and wealthy elites, which taps unwelcome memories of candidates like Michael Dukakis and George McGovern, whom Republicans easily branded as liberals.
Obama counterargument: There’s no evidence to suggest that his problem with these voters will carry over to the general election. Most of the Democrats voting in primaries are going to support the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is. Asked whether Obama “cares about people like you,” 66 percent of Pennsylvania voters said yes. Hillary Clinton received almost exactly the same rate of endorsement, suggesting Obama is not seen as an elitist relative to Clinton.
Clinton talking point No. 2: Voters consistently favor Clinton to Obama when asked which candidate can better handle the economy. In Pennsylvania, 75 percent said Clinton would do a better job of solving the country’s economic problems. When asked which candidate would make the better commander in chief, voters also regularly pick Clinton by a large margin as they did in Ohio by 60 to 37.
Obama counterargument: On the economy, Obama will be able to distinguish himself against McCain in a way he can’t against Clinton, with whom he has nearly identical economic views. On foreign affairs, Obama says that his early opposition to the war gives him a better argument in the long run against McCain.
Clinton talking point No. 3: She can take a punch. Clinton has shown extraordinary tenacity. Voters get proof every day of just how hard it will be for Republicans to beat her down. Obama, by contrast, can’t stand the heat, according to Clinton’s suggestion in her last ad. Clinton aides argue that Obama wobbled when challenged about his remarks relating to people who live in small towns or about his poor debate performance. Late-deciding voters in Pennsylvania saw this weakness and went overwhelmingly for Clinton, she can credibly claim.
Obama counterargument: He can handle adversity—look at his well-received race speech in the wake of questions about his relationship to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And he can also inspire voters—which is what they want, rather than more aggression and fighting for the sake of a fight.
Obama talking point No. 1: He can capture independents and younger voters, bringing new people into the Democratic fold and into the voting booth in November. Obama consistently wins voters under the age of 44, who represent the future of the party. In head-to-head matchups with John McCain, Obama regularly does better than Clinton among independents. Clinton’s negatives, which reached their highest point in a recent ABC survey, mean that she’ll never break through a certain ceiling with independents and moderates.
Clinton counterargument: Obama isn’t well-known and Clinton is. He’s benefiting from that now, but once McCain and the Republicans attack him as a doctrinaire liberal, his negatives will rise and independents will run from him.
Obama talking point No. 2: He is the candidate of change. Eighty percent of those polled say that the country is moving in the wrong direction. More than any other candidate, Obama is more associated than any other candidate with the change voters want.
Clinton counterargument: The more Obama campaigns, the more he contradicts his promise to practice a new high-minded politics, weakening his appeal as a new kind of politician.
Obama talking point No. 3: The party will explode if superdelegates reverse the will of the pledged delegates, among whom Obama leads. Young voters, first time voters, and African-Americans will stay home in November in protest or even vote for John McCain. That could lose Democrats not only the presidency but also other races down the ballot.
Clinton counterargument: According to Pennsylvania exit polls, Clinton’s coalition would be more dissatisfied with Obama as the nominee than Obama’s supporters would be if Clinton won the nomination. Sixteen percent of Obama’s voters would stay home or vote for John McCain if Clinton were the nominee, but 24 percent of Clinton’s would if Obama gets the nod. In other words, there’s more to worry about, in terms of internal party dissent, from an Obama nomination.