Never before was the issue of electability so central to a party’s presidential nominating contest than in this year’s Democratic clash between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Very early on, Obama presented himself as a unifying figure who could draw in independents and even some Republicans, opening up the electoral map and creating previously unimaginable targets for Democrats. But as Obama moved ahead in the delegate count, Clinton and her campaign began loudly challenging his claim, arguing that he would repel white, working-class voters and Hispanics, lose critical swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and come apart when confronted with aggressive Republican attacks. “A roll of the dice,” is how Bill Clinton memorably derided Obama, while Hillary herself railed to Bill Richardson that “he can’t win!”
Even when Obama finally secured the nomination, the argument didn’t end, with vocal Clinton supporters – egged on by the media – questioning all summer (and even into the fall) whether the Democrats had made a fatal mistake by nominating the weaker candidate.
Now, though, we can consider the matter settled – not just because Obama won last week, but because of how he won.
First, there’s the matter of the states that essentially cemented his victory, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
John McCain had targeted Pennsylvania aggressively, believing there was something to the Clintons’ primary season spin about Obama being anathema to the state’s critical white, working-class voters. But while McCain made some inroads with these voters, particularly in the western part of the state, Obama’s advantages among African-Americans in Philadelphia and the more affluent and educated voters of the Philadelphia suburbs overwhelmed the G.O.P. nominee and Obama carried the state by 10 points. Clinton, it can safely be said, would also have won the state, but her margin probably would have been the same. She would have performed better with lower-income whites, but that improvement would have been balanced by less impressive showings in Philadelphia and the suburbs.
The same can be said of Ohio, another state where Clinton beat Obama in the primaries on the strength of lower-income white support. Obama actually had little trouble carrying the state, which was called surprisingly early on Election Night. As in Pennsylvania, Clinton would have carried it by roughly the same margin, just with a slightly different coalition.
Obama also fundamentally disproved the charge that Latino voters, who favored Clinton in the primaries, would resist him in the fall.
“The Latino community sees [Clinton] as a Hispanic leader,” Representative Nydia Velazquez, a Clinton backer, said as the primary season wound down. “And for whatever reason, it seems to me that there is a problem of connecting with Latino voters from the Obama camp.”
On Election Day, though, Obama won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote, which led directly to his comfortable victories in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada – all states that had been part of George W. Bush’s winning coalition in 2004. Clinton could very possibly have won all of these states as well, particularly New Mexico and Nevada, although Obama’s particular strength among more affluent and educated independents in Colorado gave him an extra leg-up there.
None of the dire primary-season warnings about Obama came true, right down to how he handled the inevitable Republican attacks in the fall.
That leaves Obama’s electability argument – the claim that he’d put more new states into play. The record shows that Obama ended up flipping over nine states that Bush won in ’04: Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Indiana, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. He also won one congressional district in deep-red Nebraska (giving him one electoral vote in the state) and kept the race close in Missouri, Georgia, Montana (and reasonably close in North and South Dakota). Could Clinton have matched this?
Probably not. As mentioned above, she probably would have carried Ohio, Nevada and New Mexico, and you can add Florida to that list too. The other red state pick-ups that Obama earned would have been tougher for her.
For instance, North Carolina, where Obama won in a squeaker, would almost certainly have been off-limits for Clinton, since she wouldn’t have enjoyed the same level of support and enthusiasm from black voters and from the state’s growing pool of educated and affluent white voters. Virginia, where independents overwhelmingly flocked to Obama in the primary, would have been tough for her for the same reason.
Indiana, a state that voted for Bush by 21 points in ’04 and that had last supported a Democrat 44 years ago, was likely in play because of Obama’s unique coalition and wouldn’t have even been targeted with Clinton at the top of the ticket. Iowa would have been winnable for her, but she would have faced a tougher climb than Obama did. Montana, Georgia, the Dakotas and the Nebraska district would all also have been non-starters for Clinton.
There really is only one state where Obama lost and where Clinton would clearly have won: Arkansas, her sort-of home state, and one of a number of southern states in which lower-income whites strongly moved against the Democratic ticket, likely for racial reasons. Because of this trend, Clinton would probably have performed better than Obama in Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana and probably Mississippi – but probably not enough to win, or even seriously compete, in those states. West Virginia, another state where Obama’s race may have worked against him, might have been a more fruitful target for Clinton. A case can also be made that she might have prevailed in Missouri, where Obama barely lost, but her gains among lower-income whites there would probably have been balanced by less enthusiasm from blacks in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Maybe the best conclusion is that the whole electability debate was foolish to begin with. Both candidates were very capable of winning, and there’s little doubt that Clinton would have prevailed last week had she been the nominee. But there’s also little doubt now that Obama was at least as strong, and almost certainly a little stronger, a general election candidate as Clinton would have been.