03/09/2008 12:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton's General Election Disaster in the Making

Of the many strange spins the Clinton campaign has sold the media, few are as troubling as the idea that she is the stronger general election candidate: pretty much all polling, sound judgment and anecdotal evidence point to the contrary, but we are led to believe that New York and Massachusetts, those quintessential swing states, are in danger if Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate.

Hopefully, broader recent polling and perhaps a second look by the math geniuses in the mainstream media (and on many blogs) should finally put to rest the notion that with Clinton at the top of the ticket, Democrats are heading for anything but a potential disaster.

With SurveyUSA"s 50 state polling of McCain vs Obama and McCain vs Clinton, as well as studies by other credible pollsters such as Rasmussen, a fascinating picture is emerging, and it is not pretty for those who believe Clinton will do any better than John Kerry or Al Gore if she is the nominee. Let's start with one myth that is just a few days old: Clinton's strength in Ohio. Her thinking (and therefore much of the media's) is that she won the primary, Ohio is important in the general election, Obama is dead because he can't win Ohio. Yet SurveyUSA shows a rather different picture: Clinton and Obama win Ohio with the exact same percentages: 50% to John McCain's 40%.

Then there are the top states in which Clinton does much better than Obama, which read like something straight out of "Deliverance:" Arkansas, West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kentucky (in that order, without adding or omitting any). To give Clinton her due, according to SurveyUSA, she would indeed make the first three of these states competitive. This is ironic since her campaign's whole point is that Obama wins primary states in which Democrats don't have a prayer in the fall. Leaving aside Arkansas, one of Clinton's home states, this is exactly how most objective observers would describe Tennessee and, even more so, Oklahoma. At the other end of the political spectrum, in New York and Massachusetts, yes, Clinton does better there too, but obviously it doesn't matter since any Democrat will win those (on a side note, why does Massachusetts dislike Obama as much as Oklahoma does?).

As for Obama's strongest states by comparison to Clinton, the first observation is that there are far more than Clinton's seven: there are 18. At the top of the list is mostly the Clinton-hating Western and Plains heartland and Obama's own two home states: Utah, Hawaii, Vermont, Nebraska, North Dakota, Idaho, Illinois and Alaska. Of these, he actually manages to make Nebraska, North Dakota and Alaska competitive against McCain (the last time any of these states voted for a Democrat for president was in 1964).

More interesting, though, are the states slightly further down the list, those that Obama wins or ties and Clinton loses: Washington, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Oregon, New Hampshire, Virginia and New Mexico. Now how's that for places where a Democrat shouldn't even be thinking of running if she can't be competitive? And then there are yet more crucial states in which Obama is significantly stronger than Clinton and in which she struggles against McCain: Maine, Wisconsin, North Carolina and (yes) Texas. Despite her narrow primary win in the Lone Star state a few days ago, Clinton loses there against McCain, while Obama ties him.

To be fair, there is one state in which Clinton does better outside of the mostly Appalachian ones listed above: Florida. This, of course, is a state in which the candidates haven't campaigned and if the recent past is any indication, one in which the primary race will get closer (if there is another contest) and Obama will end up performing at least as well as Clinton in a general election. Even now, Obama is in a statistical tie there with McCain.

There is good news for Democrats in general in this recent polling, besides the fact that some of the states mentioned above are competitive for at least one of the candidates. It is stunning, in a good way, that Texas, North Carolina, Kansas and South Carolina are in single digits (mostly with a clear advantage for Obama vs Clinton). There are also concerns: neither candidate is putting away New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and both are losing Missouri. Here too, this is more of a problem for Clinton, who cannot count on a significant shift of previously Republican states to make up for these potential losses.

The overall picture is gloomy for Clinton and, without more confidence in her ability to strengthen her position in the general election, the superdelegates and even primary voters will not cast their lot with Clinton in high enough numbers for her to get to November. The burden now rests clearly on her to show us a path to victory in a general election, the polling for which indicates far too many close races for her in states Democrats must win, and a failure on her part to add enough independent and Republican-leaning states to the competitive mix.

Clinton starts off at a disadvantage anyway among swing groups, on top of which everything about her recent campaign seems set to compound the problem: the scorched earth attacks on Obama are alienating many of his supporters who may not vote for her in November (including potentially the most important party constituency, African-Americans); her disparagement of "red" states makes it ever less likely that independents there will consider voting for her; even her GOP-style "3am" ad, which apparently contributed to stopping Obama's poll rise in Ohio and Texas, is a sure loser against McCain in the general election: how could she ever win the experience contest against McCain?

The importance of these general election poll numbers cannot be overestimated, even at this stage. For instance, Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, an undecided superdelegate, says he will base his decision on how best he can "deliver the nine electoral votes from Colorado to the nominee." Given that in the SurveyUSA poll Obama beats McCain 51% to 40% in Colorado, and McCain beats Clinton 48% to 42%, I don't think Salazar will be on the fence too long on this one. Nor will any superdelegate up for reelection this fall anywhere outside of Massachusetts.