Last Sunday's New York Times contained an op-ed by Frank Rich ("Who's Afraid of Barack Obama," Dec. 2) suggesting that, for a variety of reasons, Barack Obama is the Democrat the Republicans fear most. While Rich emphasized Obama's authenticity, his early and unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war and his cross-over appeal to independents and Republicans, missing from his otherwise excellent article were polling results confirming why Republicans fear an Obama presidential candidacy and why they would prefer to run against Hillary Clinton.
While Clinton maintains her lead in national polling among Democrats, in direct matchups against Republican presidential candidates, she consistently runs behind both Barack Obama and John Edwards. In the recent national Zogby Poll (Nov. 26, 2007), every major Republican presidential candidate beats Clinton: McCain beats her 42 percent to 38 percent; Giuliani beats her 43 percent to 40 percent; Romney beats her 43 percent to 40 percent; Huckabee beats her 44 percent to 39 percent; and Thompson beats her 44 percent to 40 percent, despite the fact Thompson barely appears to be awake most of the time.
By contrast, Obama beats every major Republican candidate: He beats McCain 45 percent to 38 percent; Guiliani 46 percent to 41 percent; Romney 46 percent to 40 percent; Huckabee 46 percent to 40 percent; and, Thompson 47 percent to 40 percent. In other words, Obama consistently runs 8 to 11 percent stronger than Clinton when matched against Republicans. To state the obvious: The Democratic presidential candidate will have to run against a Republican.
Clinton's inherent weakness as a candidate shows up in other ways. In direct matchups for congressional seats, Democrats currently are running 10 percent to 15 percent ahead of Republicans, depending on the poll, while Clinton runs 3 percent to 7 percent behind -- a net deficit ranging from 13 to 22 percent. No candidate in presidential polling history ever has run so far behind his or her party.
To look at Clinton's candidacy another way, Clinton runs well behind generic polling for the presidency: In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Nov. 1-5, 2007, voters were asked, "Putting aside for a moment the question of who each party's nominee might be, what is your preference for the outcome of the 2008 presidential election -- that a Democrat be elected president or that a Republican be elected president?" By 50 percent to 35 percent, voters chose "Democrat" -- a 15-point edge. Thus, Clinton is running 10 to 15 percent, or more, behind the generic Democratic candidate. This is not a promising metric nor the numbers of a strong candidate.
Look at Iowa: It is neck-and-neck, with Obama, Clinton and Edwards running close among the first tier of Democratic candidates. But Clinton is the only woman running against seven men, yet polls only around 25 percent. When you have been in the public eye for 15 years and are well-known, when your husband was a popular president and remains perhaps the most popular Democrat in America, when you are the only female candidate in a race against seven men, but you are polling just 25 percent, you are not a strong candidate.
I had occasion last week to speak for an hour and a half with a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in a battleground state. Without revealing who I favored in the Democratic primary, I asked, "Who would help you the most at the top of the Democratic ticket in November 2008?" Without hesitation, the candidate [who cannot take a public position in the presidential primary] responded: "I can tell you who would hurt me the most -- Hillary Clinton. She has 30-40 percent of voters in my state who never would vote for her under any circumstances, and she is no one's second choice. Her support is lukewarm, at best."
In a recent article in The New Republic, Thomas F. Schaller quoted two Midwestern politicians about the negative effect of having Clinton lead the Democratic ticket in 2008. Missouri House Minority Whip Connie Johnson warned, "If Hillary comes to the state of Missouri, we can write it off." Democratic state Rep. Dave Crooks of Indiana stated, "I'm not sure it (Clinton candidacy) would be fatal in Indiana, but she would be a drag."
Karl Rove recently commented on Hillary's candidacy, observing that she had the highest "unfavorable" ratings of any presidential candidate in modern polling history. In the USA/Gallup Poll, over the past two years, Clinton's "unfavorable" ratings have ranged from 40 percent to 52 percent and currently are running 45 percent -- far higher than any other Democratic or Republican presidential hopeful and higher than any presidential candidate at this stage in polling history. Hillary Clinton may be the most well-known, recognizable candidate, but that is proving to be as much a burden as a benefit.
Another factor to consider is the power of Clinton to unify the opposition. While the field of Republican candidates is uninspiring, if not grim, Clinton is a galvanizing force for conservatives. While Clinton-hatred may be unfair (I happen to think it is), the intensity of animosity conservatives have reserved for the Clintons is unprecedented. They want to run against her not only because she may be the weakest candidate, but also because they hate her and what they think she stands for. I am not endorsing this hatred, which I consider irrational and destructive, but Democrats need to consider that her candidacy, more than any other Democratic candidate, has the potential to motivate and activate the opposition.
To be fair, it should be noted that not all polls find Clinton on the short end of polling disparities, and some have found her polling at parity, or sometimes even slightly ahead, of Republicans (generally, within the margin of polling error). But this should not obscure the main point: By every measure, Clinton's support runs well behind congressional Democrats, well behind generic Democrats and, generally, behind her Democratic presidential rivals in matchups with Republicans.
Bill: When will the other shoe drop?
Every presidential candidate inspires humor. In the case of Bill and Hillary, it is an avalanche, including the "Hillary Spanking Bill Clinton Whipping Magnet" for refrigerators across America. But what about Bill's proven 30-year history of womanizing? Should we assume these patterns have disappeared? Or should we assume there may be more revelations about Bill's continuing liaisons with women that Republicans will produce during the general election, taking voters back to memories of Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, with Hillary playing the role of Bill's enabler? Given Bill's past conduct, wouldn't it be prudent for Democratic voters to assume this is an additional liability a Clinton candidacy might have to carry in the general election?
When the beginning point for Clinton is at or behind her Republican opponent, and 10 to 15 points behind the Democratic Party, how many liabilities can her candidacy sustain? Even if there is less than a 50 percent chance of more revelations about Bill, is it wise for Democratic voters to ignore this risk, roll the dice and take that chance when the presidency is at stake?
If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, I will support her candidacy and hope for the best, because I am not sure much of America would be left after another four to eight years of a Republican presidency. But shouldn't Democrats be thinking strategically about who comes to the table with more strengths, fewer liabilities and fewer potential game-changing surprises? I sure hope so.
Guy T. Saperstein is past president of the Sierra Club Foundation; previously, he was one of the National Law Journal's "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."
This post first appeared on Alternet.