THE BLOG
03/09/2008 05:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The False Assumptions In the "Electability" Arguments

It seems the longer the presidential nominating contest goes on between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the more idiotic the pontificating and candidate spinning -- especially when it comes to the so-called "electability" argument.

The Clinton campaign, as exemplified by surrogate Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) this morning on Meet the Press when he said:

"She's clearly the strongest candidate in the states that Democrats must win to have a chance. Look, it's great that Barack Obama is doing wonderfully well in Wyoming and Utah and, and places like that, but there's no chance we're going to carry those states. Whether he gets 44 percent as opposed to 39 percent doesn't matter, but we're not going to carry those states. We do have a chance to carry the big four. We've got to in three of the big four. Hillary Clinton's the strongest candidate to do that. That's been proven by the voters in the -- those states and hopefully by Pennsylvania as well."

Let's put aside the fact that the Clinton campaign is insulting the importance of a huge swath of the American heartland -- a talking point that has been repeated throughout this campaign by Clinton surrogates. Let's just take a look at the two questionable assumptions inherent in this "electability" claim.

Assumption 1: The Map Can Never Dramatically Change

The first assumption relates to the topography of the national electoral map. In talking about states that are "significant" and "insignificant" based on how they voted in previous elections, the Clinton campaign is assuming the basic map of the last 16 years automatically has to stay the same, and that there cannot be a map-changing candidate. This argument comes despite periodic elections in our history that have seen such shifts. For example, take a look at this animated image derived from Wikipedia's maps - it shows how the national political map changed between the 1976 election and the 1980 election (note - on the maps, Dems are blue and Republicans are red):

Yes, those parts flashing between red and blue are the regions of the country that shifted in just one election cycle. Perhaps even more relevant to the Clinton argument today is the map change between 1988 and 1992 -- the year that one Bill Clinton benefited from a major map change:

So, in other words, Hillary Clinton -- the person who became First Lady because of a major map change - is nonetheless arguing the map can never change, and her campaign is making such an argument at the very moment one of history's most unpopular president is atop the Republican Party. The logic is positively ridiculous.

Assumption 2: Primary and Caucus Victories Directly Relate to General-Election Viability

The other assumption in the Clinton campaign's "electability" argument is that that because Clinton is winning Democratic primaries in big Democratic states like California, New York and New Jersey and other big states like Ohio, it means that she is the best candidate to win those states in the general election.

This rationale makes positively no sense at all, because it suggests that Obama in a general would do worse than Clinton in already Democratic states -- and there's no proof of that. Winning a Democratic primary among Democratic voters says almost nothing about the candidates' abilities to win general elections as we unfortunately saw in the Connecticut Senate race in 2006.

In fact, looking at what evidence we do have -- general election matchup polls -- we see that Obama would be a stronger general election candidate than Clinton, racking up more electoral college votes than Clinton. Though the polls show Obama losing Florida, New Jersey and Arkansas where Clinton would win, it shows Obama winning Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota and Michigan where Clinton would lose (the latter of which the Clinton campaign continues to hilariously insist it "won" in the primary, despite no other major candidate being on the Michigan ballot).

The differences, of course, go back to the underlying argument about maps. Right now, polls show Obama picks up electoral votes in states that the Clinton surrogates say "don't matter [because] we're not going to carry those states." And what's particularly absurd about the Clinton campaign making this argument is that former President Bill Clinton is insisting that in a general election Hillary Clinton can win back "the traditional rural areas that we lost when President Reagan was president." In other words, the Clinton campaign is arguing that the map has to remain the same as it has been for two decades -- with the same states in play and not in play -- at the same time they argue that Hillary Clinton is the candidate who can win back Reagan Democrats that created that map in the first place.

I never thought I'd see the day when someone could say with a straight face that Hillary Clinton was the Democrats' best candidate to win back the Reagan Democrats alienated from the Democratic Party by, among other things, a job-killing lobbyist-written trade policy that Hillary Clinton championed for a decade. It's just a ridiculous assertion on its face - and it's even more ridiculous when you look at what evidence we have, which is current public opinion polls.

More generally, the attempt to cite the geography of primary wins as proof of general election viability is straight-up silly. And yet, the whole meme has bled into almost every analysis of what is going on in the race. As I said to start, the longer the presidential nominating contest goes on between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the more idiotic the pontificating and candidate spinning.