The Trouble With Hillary’s Electability

by Paul Hogarth on August 29, 2007

With Hillary Clinton leading among Democratic primary voters, pundits are asking the same question they asked about Howard Dean four years ago – can she win the general election? In response, some have pointed to the matchup polls both nationwide and in swing states, proving that even Hillary can defeat the Republican nominee. But that’s because Republicans are in such disarray that whoever gets the Democratic nomination – Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama – is favored to win. Hillary could still get elected President, but it would be a much closer race than if Edwards or Obama were the party’s nominee. Moreover, Hillary will hurt down-ballot Democrats in red states (and even swing states) and give Republicans a shot in the arm – making it difficult for 2008 to be a year of progressive realignment. For activists who say they’re in it for the long haul, a President Hillary Clinton will not help in 2010, 2012 and beyond.

There’s no better way to explain how dysfunctional Republicans are than the undeclared presidential “campaign” of Fred Thompson. Here’s a guy who was a one-term Senator in the 1990’s who did nothing worth remembering – and whose campaign rationale seems premised on the fact that John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” is a train wreck. The other two candidates – Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney – have never been popular with the party base, and no Republican will want to run in 2008 on George Bush’s legacy.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even Hillary Clinton beats the four Republican candidates in hypothetical match-ups. In Missouri, a swing state that Bush carried in 2004, Hillary currently beats Giuliani by three points, Thompson and McCain by six points, and Romney by nine points – according to the latest Rasmussen poll.

But take a deeper look at these polls, and the closeness factor should alarm us. In Pennsylvania, a must-win state that John Kerry took in 2004, Hillary beats Romney by 13 points, Thompson by seven points, and McCain by four points. But she only beats Giuliani (who is favored to get the G.O.P. nod) by a 45-44 margin.

Of course Hillary could win under the current climate, but she would also be the weakest of the three major Democratic candidates in the general election. If you look at a composite total of national polls, Hillary would only beat the generic Republican nominee by five points.

Meanwhile, Edwards and Obama would each win by about nine points. While Hillary would beat Fred Thompson nationwide by a 6-point margin, Edwards would win by 12 and Obama by 13. When it comes to attracting “swing votes” to have a popular mandate, Obama and Edwards – who are more progressive than Hillary – are also more electable.

But it’s not just a question of whether a candidate can win – or what that winning margin would be. Hillary Clinton is simply not electable in large parts of the country, and there’s nothing that will change theses voters’ opinions after 15 years. Putting her at the top of the ticket will hurt Democratic candidates who are running for Congress there, at a time when 2008 should be another “wave” election year like 2006.

With Howard Dean’s “Fifty State Strategy,” Democrats have aggressively campaigned in states that the party abandoned years ago – running candidates for office that create a new “farm team.” Success stories include Senator Jon Tester of Montana, an organic farmer who wants to repeal the Patriot Act but appeals to the red-state voter. Having Hillary Clinton as the party’s titular head will make it harder to elect such candidates.

After he announced his resignation, G.O.P. strategist Karl Rove went on national TV to attack Hillary Clinton. Her campaign was thrilled, as they knew that being the target of Rove can only help her among Democratic voters. But it’s not hard to see that he did this intentionally. He wants Democrats to pick the weakest nominee, so that the Republicans can be in a stronger position down the road.

And the trouble with Hillary’s electability go way past 2008 – assuming she gets elected President and the Democrats keep Congress. Hillary is such a polarizing figure that having her in office will only embolden Republicans to rebuild their grassroots infrastructure. While Democrats rightfully complain that much of the anti-Hillary sentiment is unfair, it’s real and they need to understand its potency.

Progressive activists say they’re in it for the long haul. It was great to elect a Democratic President in 1992, but that was dwarfed by the Republican take-over of Congress in 1994. When Democrats finally won Congress in 2006, everyone on the Left understood that it is only the start – not the finish – of a very long journey to undo the damage of the Reagan-Gingrich-Bush legacy, and initiate a new progressive era.

So even if Hillary can win the White House in 2008, it’s way too simplistic to view that as the ultimate goal. Will Democrats who want a woman President be content if Hillary Clinton makes it harder for the party to become relevant in all fifty states? Will they care if it helps the Republicans take back Congress in 2010, 2012 or 2014?

What about the issues that matter? Will Hillary push a progressive agenda the way that a President Edwards or Obama would push? Who do you trust to stick to their guns when the right-wing noise machine goes on the attack, and who do you fear will triangulate against the Left and take them for granted when it is expedient?

These are the questions that Democratic voters need to think about right now – before the first primary votes are cast.

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