Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Clinton effect downballot

This has been my axe to grind for quite some time, as regular readers will attest. But there have been protests from some quarters that there is no empirical evidence (i.e., polling) to reflect the accuracy of the postulate that Clinton negatively impacts downballot races.

Let's overlook the assumption that polling is empirical for the moment -- it may be math but it's less science than people claim -- and just consider the history. Chuck Todd (bold emphasis mine):

Simply take a look at Bill Clinton's record from '92 to '00 and you’ll understand why they're having a harder time corralling party activists and elected officials to their side.

Remember, when his name was on the ballot ('92 and '96) the Democratic party lost Senate seats both times. Never mind the beating the party took in '94; a walloping often blamed on both Bill and Hillary.

Even in '98, which was, perhaps, the most successful Congressional election of the Clinton era, the party netted zero Senate seats and gained less than a handful of House seats.

It's not exactly something to brag about.

While there are plenty of unknowns about Obama’s ability to truly expand the base of the Democratic Party, there are plenty of superdelegates who think they know Clinton couldn't rise to that very same challenge.

Nineteen ninety-four was the year Newt Gingrich and hundreds of other Republicans swept into Congress on the wings of "The Contract With America". 1994 was the last year there was a Texas Democrat in a statewide executive office. More about the real differences between an Obama nomination and a Clinton one from my favorite frog:

Provided that Obama receives the nomination after winning the pledged delegate count, there is no reason for 'Latinos, perhaps part of the Jewish and Catholic vote, certain women and working-class Democrats' to lose confidence in the process. Their preferred candidate simply lost. It happens.

But if Obama wins the pledged delegate count and still does not gain the nomination, his supporters (most especially but certainly not limited to African-Americans) will be deeply, deeply disillusioned with the process. Even if Clinton were to catch up in the popular vote (a near pipe-dream, but nonetheless) it would offer some measure of mitigation, but not nearly enough to avoid a gross sense of injustice. ... African-American turnout in the general election will be severely depressed, and the damage will be lasting.

Black turnout is absolutely critical to any Democratic statewide run for office in states like Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Latino turnout can be critical in some states, too, but (there is) no argument for why Latino turnout would be severely depressed by a legitimate Obama nomination.

Obama may have a different base than Clinton, but if we are going to do an honest analysis, we have to ask which constituencies are going to stay-home or vote for McCain because Obama won the nomination (in their eyes) illegitimately. The answer is, of course, none. Obama has the conventional and legitimate claim to the nomination. Clinton's claim is based on non-traditional and non-conventional arguments. Her claim is an electability argument, which can wax and wane depending on the day.

Are there some Jewish, Catholic, white working class, and female voters that will vote for Clinton and not for Obama? Certainly. Of course, the opposite is also true. But the operative question is why will they or won't they vote for Obama? If it is not because of the perceived illegitimacy of his nomination then it isn't really relevant, is it?

So, why won't blacks vote for Clinton if she is the nominee? For starters, it is because she will have won unconventionally, and on the argument that Barack Obama is unelectable. Why is he unelectable? Well, currently the Clinton campaign is saying he is unelectable because he has connections to an urban black church and a controversial pastor. That is an argument that, whatever its objective merits, is a straight rebuke of the legitimacy of African-Americans as Americans. To win, Clinton will have had to convince the overwhelmingly white superdelegates that Obama's connections to the black community render him unacceptable to the broader general electorate. They cannot win any other way.

Is there any sense in which Obama's nomination is dependent on convincing the electorate that Clinton's gender renders her unelectable? No. First of all, Obama has already secured the nomination in the traditional sense, and he doesn't need to make extracurricular arguments about electability. But, secondly, his campaign has always (until recently) argued that Clinton is fully qualified to be president and has never to my knowledge raised her gender as a negative in this campaign (either overtly, or covertly).

There are going to be some women that think Clinton was treated unfairly in this process because of her gender, but very few of them will be able to harbor the kind of lingering resentment toward the Obama campaign that would preclude them from supporting him in the fall.

At this point in the process, the legitimacy of Obama's nomination is so established by The Math that the Democratic Party has almost no choice but to nominate him. To fail to do so would destroy the electoral viability of the party not only in the presidential race but in statewide downticket races all across the country.

The electoral disaster of a Clinton nomination -- from the White House to the statehouse to the courthouse -- would be monumental. Every day that she is allowed to continue to caustically divide the party (with her rhetoric, her actions, and especially with those of her surrogates such as Howard Wolfsen and James Carville) worsens the odds of capturing the White House in 2008. It threatens our legislative majoritiess in Congress -- well, perhaps even Hillary can't screw up the House -- and damages the state legislature and county courthouse chances of Democrats coast to coast. It bears repeating: someone must convince her to stand down, and the sooner the better.

There's still a month to go before Pennsylvania. How repulsive do you think it's going to get between now and then if this goes that long? Or longer?

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