What Happened to Obama's Primary Problems?

Barack Obama will not be able to win in the fall because he hasn’t been able to win the most important states in the spring.

We heard this argument over and over again, for months on end, from Hillary Clinton and her supporters during the Democratic primary season. And many prominent members of the media bought into it, too, devoting endless space and countless hours to discussions of the supposedly dire general-election problems that Obama faced.

"I’ve won the states that we have to win—Ohio and now Pennsylvania," Clinton declared after her April 22 victory in the Keystone State. "If you can’t win the states we have to win in the fall, maybe that says something about your general-election appeal."

Absent from this hysteria, for the most part, was the simple historical truth that there is little correlation between winning a state’s primary and winning that state in the fall. Just because Clinton won primaries in a host of traditional swing states didn’t really say anything about Obama’s fall prospects in those states.

Now, three weeks after Obama clinched the nomination, the problems with the argument are clear.

Take Pennsylvania. In the six-week run-up to the state’s primary, we were told that it would serve as a pivotal test of Obama’s ability to connect with "white, working-class voters"—the folks who would decide not just Pennsylvania in the fall, but also Ohio, Michigan and a handful of other blue-collar states.

"The path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," the Clinton campaign announced, "goes through Pennsylvania, so if Barack Obama can’t win there, how will he win the general election?"

This became the frame through which the Pennsylvania race was presented, and when Obama lost the primary by nine points, it was taken as a sign of a potentially fatal fall flaw. Surely, all of those voters who chose Clinton, heroine of the working class, would prefer tough-talking John McCain to Obama and his liberal elitism.

Few commentators bothered to consider the vast differences between Pennsylvania’s November electorate—when independents and Republicans are allowed to vote—and the closed, Democrats-only primary electorate. Just over two million people voted in the primary—an astounding turnout, as was the case in most Democratic primaries this year—with Clinton beating Obama by about 214,000 votes.

The fall electorate, meanwhile, will expand to over six million voters, many of them independents. Even if you accept that those 214,000 extra primary voters that Clinton won will all refuse to support Obama in November, he could still make up for it by performing just a few points better against McCain among independents (and Republicans, for that matter) than Clinton would have.

But the idea that so many Clinton voters would refuse to back Obama against McCain was deeply flawed, which is another reason that Obama’s nine-point primary loss wasn’t as significant as it was made out to be.

It was always reasonable to believe that some of Clinton’s voters would be too upset with Obama to vote for him in November (just as some of Obama’s voters would have shied away from Clinton), but the overwhelming majority are highly likely to return to the party’s fold in the end. There’s a reason no G.O.P. presidential candidate has carried Pennsylvania in 20 years.

And now the general-election polling data supports all of this. The four most recent polls in Pennsylvania, all conducted well after the April primary, show Obama leading by six, eight, 12 and four points. Last week, CNN made a big show of announcing on-air that it was changing Pennsylvania’s designation from a toss-up general-election state to a "Leans Obama" state.

And there’s this: The most recent Pennsylvania poll, released on Wednesday, finds that Obama is now beating McCain among the very low-income voters with whom—according to the primary-season narrative—he was supposed to struggle so mightily. As Talking Points Memo noted, the pollster states that "Obama has a sizable lead among those voters earning less than $40,000 a year, with McCain well ahead among those who earn more than that annually."

The deeply divided Democratic primary voters of Pennsylvania are coalescing behind Obama. And if there is any resistance to Obama from Clinton voters, it seems to be more than canceled out by his strength among independents.

The same story is playing out elsewhere. Ohio? Obama leads in three of the last four polls released—by six, nine and 11 points—and trails McCain in the fourth by a single point. Michigan? After lagging behind McCain in May (in part, perhaps, because the primary controversy kept Obama out of the state for most of this year), Obama leads McCain by three and nine points in the two most recent surveys.

Even in smaller swing states where Clinton claimed primary victories, Obama is doing just fine. The last two polls in New Hampshire (where McCain won a major victory in the G.O.P. primary) have Obama ahead by double digits, just as he leads in New Mexico and—somewhat shockingly, since it hasn’t been a swing state for a long time—Indiana (by a point).

Perhaps most telling is the analysis of Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, who has noted marked jumps in Obama’s support over the last month in Kentucky, Arkansas and the "Appalachia" parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Those white, working-class voters may not have been quite as conflicted about the Obama/McCain choice as we kept hearing.

Back in March, I noted that George W. Bush owed his presidency to a general-election victory in a state—New Hampshire—where he had fared miserably in the primary (a 19-point loss) and where his opponent, Al Gore, had won the Democratic primary. Obama has the potential to pull off the same feat in several states this fall—and if he does, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.


What Happened to Obama's Primary Problems?