Republicans Like Obama — But it Doesn’t Matter to Democrats

There seem to be two prevailing but absolutely contradictory attitudes about Hillary Clinton’s ’08 prospects.

One school of thought insists she’s the least electable Democrat, an easy argument to make given that her unfavorable rating has hovered near 50 percent for about 15 years now. But then you take a poll, and Democrats overwhelmingly say that Hillary is their best bet for the fall – and, in fact, that electability is one of the main reasons they support her. (A July poll found Democrats calling her the most electable candidate by a 54-22 percent margin over Barack Obama.)

And yet, as Michael Scherer in Salon points out, Republicans and independents clearly like Obama more than Hillary, or any other Democrat for that matter:

Any political expert will tell you that polls don't mean much five months before the first caucus. But a pattern may be emerging. In part because of Clinton's high negatives among Republicans, it appears Obama is gaining momentum as a fresh candidate with a less divisive approach, by constantly appealing beyond the partisan lines of the last decade. His first television ad buy in Iowa included testimony from a Republican state lawmaker from Illinois talking up Obama and his ability to reach across party lines. As Obama reiterated in an appearance in Iowa last week, "The country is hungry for change. It wants something new. We want to chart a new direction for our nation."

For the record, I don’t subscribe to the notion that Hillary Clinton can not win in the fall of ’08. In fact, I’d probably make her the favorite against any Republican at this point. It’s not that I think her favorable numbers will improve radically – or at all – but the climate is so bad for the G.O.P. that I think Hillary can get 271 electoral votes. (In a sense, she’s like the despised Chuck Robb running for re-election in Virginia in 1994 against the even more despised Oliver North. Under no other circumstances could Robb have won, but the G.O.P. was so weak that he eked out a win.)

But if you’re a Democrat, why even take a chance on Hillary if there are such clear signs that Obama has the kind of cross-over appeal on which landslides are built?

The situation is beginning to remind me of the G.O.P. race in 2000, with George W. Bush running – like Hillary now – as the candidate of the establishment and inevitability. And yet polls were even clearer back then that independents and Democrats loved John McCain. I recall a poll in March that showed Bush essentially running even with Al Gore, while McCain enjoyed a lead of more than 20 points.  Nominating McCain would have produced a landslide for the Republicans, and yet they rallied around Bush, who needed a Supreme Court ruling to beat Gore.

In 2000, the G.O.P. shunned McCain for conspiratorial reasons: Bush told them that McCain’s support was from “mischievous” Democrats trying to install a weak G.O.P. nominee. (Indeed, despite the poll numbers, among Republicans Bush was still regarded as the stronger autumn candidate.) Add to this the love McCain got from the “liberal” media and his campaign finance reform apostasy, and it was all enough for the G.O.P. to turn its back on him.

But why are Democrats resisting the evidence that Obama is the most electable candidate? Are they confusing familiarity – Hillary’s been on the national stage since 1992, while no one had heard of Obama before 2004 – with electability?