Clinton, Obama and the Swing-State Argument

A couple of observations about one of the big Clinton talking points after yesterday’s Ohio win: the notion that you can’t win in the fall without winning the big swing states that Hillary Clinton is winning in the primaries.

(“We need a Democratic candidate who can win battleground states like Ohio!” she said last night.)

One piece of mitigating evidence is that Obama has won his share of swing states this primary season: Virginia, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are all expected to be in play this fall, a combined trove of 60 electoral votes (29 of which were lost by Democrats four years ago).

Another is this: History does not suggest that there is a serious correlation between a candidate’s performance in a state’s presidential primary and how that candidate fares as a general election candidate.

Case in point: George W. Bush in 2000. Recall that Bush was trounced in the New Hampshire primary that year, losing to John McCain by nearly 20 points, a result that turned McCain into a national political celebrity and that nearly ended Bush’s campaign. The 30 percent that Bush received in New Hampshire was the lowest he scored in any Republican primary or caucus in 2000. On the same day, New Hampshire voted for Al Gore over Bill Bradley, a verdict that essentially ended the Democratic nominating contest.

And yet: New Hampshire single-handedly made Bush the president in the fall. Bush’s narrow win over Gore gave him the state’s four electoral votes, without which Florida would have been inconsequential. It marked the first (and still only) time since 1988 that New Hampshire sided with the Republicans in the fall, and New Hampshire was the only state in the Northeast to side with Bush.

Probably worth keeping in mind when considering the relevance of Obama’s loss in Ohio yesterday to the Democrats’ ability, if he’s the nominee, to win there in the fall.