The Clinton campaign released a memo yesterday whose first line read: “The path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue goes through Pennsylvania so if Barack Obama can’t win there, how will he win the general election?”
Let’s accept, for a moment, the Clinton campaign’s suggestion that Pennsylvania is the most pivotal state for any Democratic candidate to carry in the fall. Even if that’s true, there’s really no reason to think that Obama would be worse-positioned there for the general election than Clinton would be.
For one thing, a recent poll showed him only running one statistically-insignificant point worse than Clinton against John McCain in Pennsylvania—and another found him doing much better than her against the presumed G.O.P. nominee.
This only makes sense. Candidates can—and often have—won states in the fall that they have lost in the spring. There is no correlation between winning a primary, particularly a closed one like Pennsylvania, and winning in the fall, when independents and cross-party voters provide the winning margin.
This was true in 1980 in Pennsylvania, where Ronald Reagan suffered one of the lowest moments of his primary campaign only to bounce back and carry the state in the fall. Or consider 2000, when George W. Bush won the four electoral votes that put him over 270 (putting the Florida issue aside) in the swing state of New Hampshire—a state that he lost miserably in the primaries while his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, was carrying it.
Obama, in the likely event he does lose Pennsylvania in April, can win it in the fall, just as he can win every other swing state that Clinton has carried. Even though he lost Ohio, for instance, he fares no worse than Clinton there against McCain. And in both New Mexico and Nevada, smaller but still potentially important swing states, Obama runs 16 points better against McCain than Clinton—even though Clinton beat Obama in both during the primary season. It can not be said enough: There is no correlation between winning a state’s primary and winning it in the general election.
But the most historically ignorant claim in the memo came later on: “No Democrat has won the presidency without winning Pennsylvania since 1948. And no candidate has won the Democratic nomination without winning Pennsylvania since 1972.”
The second part is demonstrably false. Ted Kennedy beat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Pennsylvania primary, but it was Carter who won the nomination. (Carter did win a few more delegates in the state than Kennedy—but, as they told us after Nevada and Texas, this is not the criteria that the Clinton campaign favors in declaring who wins or loses a state.)
Also, it’s absurd to paint the Pennsylvania primary as some well-established hurdle that every nominee must clear. Since its date is always so late, this is actually the first time that Pennsylvania has held a consequential Democratic primary since 1984 (when its voters picked Walter Mondale over Gary Hart). Mostly, Pennsylvania has rubber-stamped already-determined nominees—Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. It has not played a leading role in choosing a nominee in a quarter-century.
And the assertion that no Democrat since 1948 has won the presidency without winning Pennsylvania is technically true—but highly deceptive. Left unsaid is that fact that every successful Democrat after Harry Truman in 1948 would have won the presidency even if he’d lost Pennsylvania. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all won enough electoral votes elsewhere and didn’t need the buffer provided by Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s electoral clout has shrunk dramatically since ’48. Back then it had 37 electoral votes. Now it has 23—a decline of about 40 percent. The population has spread out, making other victory formulas possible for Democrats. This is relevant because of Obama’s considerable superiority in general election match-ups in potential swing states like Virginia and Colorado. Winning those two alone would essentially undo the damage of a Pennsylvania defeat.
Of course, all of this assumes Pennsylvania is somehow more at risk for the Democrats, who haven’t lost it with any nominee since 1988, with Obama as their standard-bearer than with Clinton. And so it should be stated yet again: There is no correlation between winning a state’s primary and winning it in the general election.
The problem for the Clinton campaign is that if they admit this basic fact, they really don’t have much left to say.