02/11/2008 11:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Electability Matters

The importance of electability in November is often exaggerated during the primaries. In 2004, Howard Dean's candidacy died in part because of misguided concerns about electability. And as John Kerry showed us, those predictions can be dead wrong. But we have reached the point in this year's Democratic primary where Hillary Clinton's electability problem can no longer be ignored. According to seven consecutive polls (and consistent with virtually all of the poll taken during the campaign), Barack Obama does far better, outperforming Hillary Clinton by an average of 5.1 percentage points (wider than the winning margin in the last two elections). In the most recent Rasmussen poll, release today, Hillary Clinton loses to McCain by 3 percentage points while Obama beats McCain by 5 percentage points. In the last seven polls, McCain beats Obama only once (by one point) while Clinton beats McCain only once. (See this summary of all polls on the match-up.)

Here are eight reasons why:

1. Obama improves with familiarity.

Right now, Obama's national numbers are lower than than they will be because only about half of the states have voted. In the remaining states, voters being polled haven't paid as much attention to the election and don't know Obama will. Obama, unlike Clinton, has a huge upside and is highly likely to become more popular as voters learn more. Clinton is a known commodity, and not many voters like her.

2. Conservative forces, activate!

The Republicans are begging to go up against Clinton. You can't always trust the Republican pundits, but they are unanimous on this point and they know the conservative base. George Will: "The surest way to unify the Republican Party, however, is for Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton." Rush Limbaugh even proposed raising money this week to help Hillary Clinton with the slogan, "keep her in it, so we can win it."

3. John Kerry, redux.

One of the biggest reasons why Kerry lost in 2004 was the success of Republicans in painting him a flip-flopper. And his vote on the war in Iraq was the clearest example of that. Hillary Clinton is a just a flip-flopper who won't even admit a mistake. Many Americans would rather vote for a consistent candidate with a position they oppose over an inconsistent candidate whose position they favor. If the media continue to report the myth that the surge is working, McCain's consistent support for the war will make him a more appealing candidate than Hillary Clinton. Only someone like Obama, who opposed the war from the beginning, can provide a clear and consistent contrast to McCain.

4. Swiftboating.

Hillary Clinton has promised that she won't be swiftboated if she's the nominee. But she won't have a choice in the matter. She is perpetuating the myth that John Kerry could have avoided being swiftboated simply by resisting it more aggressively. While Kerry might have handled it better, the truth is that Hillary Clinton is far more vulnerable to swiftboating than Obama. There's also a big difference between John Kerry's swiftboating and Hillary Clinton's scandals. The attacks on Kerry were simply a series of lies which the media failed to aggressively expose. By contrast, even if the media loved Hillary enough to write about all of the attacks against her, it would only fuel many of these critiques because many of these Clinton scandals are not outright lies. Barack Obama has already been swiftboated by the right. The absurd email smears accusing him of being a Muslim have spread continuously for a long time. But he also doesn't inspire the kind of massive fundraising opposition that Clinton would. So Clinton is easier to swiftboat and more likely to spur a massive swiftboat operation from Republican 527s.

5. Ethics.

As I explained in this article, Obama's stand on earmarks and ethics reform is roughly the same as John McCain's record. McCain can't effectively wage a campaign against Obama by decrying Washington. But McCain will do that to Clinton, and very effectively. Corruption won Democrats control of Congress in 2006, and it could easily help John McCain win the White House in 2008, but only if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

6. Coattails.

Activating conservatives by selecting Clinton not only threatens Democratic victory in the presidential election, it also hurts Democrats down the ticket. Obama inspires and organizes new voters who can swing over many vulnerable seats in Congress and state legislatures. Hillary Clinton has reverse coattails by causing getting conservatives to the polls and causing independents to vote for the Republicans or stay home.

7. Vetting.

Clinton claims that she's been vetted and implies that Obama hasn't. This is untrue. Obama has been extensively vetted. Reporters from the Chicago Tribune and other papers have retraced the steps in his life, doublechecking even the most trivial details of what he's said and done. In one particularly absurd example, the Chicago Tribune claimed that Obama invented a story about reading an article as a 9-year-old in Life magazine about skin bleaching (it was actually an article on the topic that year in Esquire). As Stephen Colbert responded to this scandal, "If we can't trust you to remember which magazine you read in Indonesia when you were nine, how can we possibly ever trust you to protect our country?"

The key difference between Clinton and Obama is that all of Obama's vetting has taken place in this election cycle and been reported in the press. Therefore, the voters and the press have already largely taken account of these factors in their view of Obama. By contrast, all of Clinton's vetting took place years ago. Many of her scandals were extensively (and sometime unfairly) examined during the 1990s. A few other items rose to the surface during her 2000 campaign for the US Senate (for example, the claim that she called a staffer a "Jew bastard" in the 1970s). But none of the Clinton scandals, true or false, have been presented to the national public for almost a decade. The media during this campaign have essentially ignored everything buried in the Clinton closet. That won't happen during the general election. Many conservative groups are preparing to fight the greatest political smear campaign in American history, utilizing 527s outside of McCain's control to attack Hillary Clinton. They will probably be able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from conservatives who never felt inspired to donate to any of the Republican candidates this year but who would do anything to defeat Hillary.

8. Hillary Clinton: A Bad Match-Up with McCain.

Many of Hillary Clinton's strongest attributes in the Democratic primary will disappear against McCain. Her appeal to older voters will largely disappear against the elderly McCain. Her claims of experience, although greatly exaggerated against Obama, will simply seem laughable against McCain. All of the emphasis Hillary has put on experience in the primary will be turned against her as she tries to re-tool her rhetoric into a change campaign.

Against Romney or Huckabee, almost any Democratic candidate could win and Obama would be favored only because he offers the potential of a landslide victory. But the nomination of John McCain raises the stakes enormously. McCain is incredibly popular with the public and the press, and he has enormous appeal to many moderates.

Right now, the polls don't account for the fact that some conservatives would refuse to vote or work as activists in an Obama/McCain matchup (or might vote for Obama), but they would work against a Clinton. Even if a small percentage of these conservative activists are activated by Clinton, it could make a decisive difference.

Obama has the exact opposite effect of Clinton: he decreases enthusiasm for Republican voters to show up, and he increases enthusiasm among new Democratic voters, especially young voters, to get out and vote. Head-to-head polls simply can't measure intensity, and intensity of support (or opposition) is a fundamental difference between Obama and Clinton. Intensity brings out voters, and activists, and donors, and Obama has the clear advantage.

Of course, polls alone cannot deal with intensity and issues likely to come up during the campaign. In reality, I argue, Hillary Clinton is much more likely than Obama to lose in November than even these polls indicate. At a time when the Democrats are poised to win a transformational election that could radically shift the balance of power in Washington to a progressive majority for the first time, Hillary Clinton is the biggest single danger to the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

Note: I'm the author of a new book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest, but I'm not part of the Obama Campaign.

Crossposted at ObamaPolitics.