Bill and Hillary Clinton's not-so-secret argument that Barack Obama cannot win in November -- swallowed as a legitimate question by too many TV bloviators -- is based on a false assumption: that how Obama performs in primaries against Clinton in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is a measure of how he would do against McCain in the general election.
It's a clever manipulation of some polling data, but it's bad social science and faulty reasoning.
Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary to Hillary Clinton exactly as expected and predicted. Yet in the wake of the vote there's been a constant stream of palaver from TV pundits about Obama's "problem" with working-class white voters who, it is almost universally argued, "he must win over if he hopes to defeat McCain in November."
Because she carried this demographic in the Democratic primary, Clinton is presumed by the blowhards to be better positioned among this salt-of-the-earth slice of the electorate than is Obama. But there is no evidence to speak of that demonstrates that Obama would do any worse in a general election against McCain than would Clinton, however their votes might be comprised.
In fact, according to Patrick Healy of the New York Times, one of the only political writers to take a serious look at the issue:
According to surveys of Pennsylvania voters leaving the polls on Tuesday, Mr. Obama would draw majorities of support from lower-income voters and less-educated ones -- just as Mrs. Clinton would against Mr. McCain, even though those voters have favored her over Mr. Obama in the primaries.
And national polls suggest Mr. Obama would also do slightly better among groups that have gravitated to Republican in the past, like men, the more affluent and independents, while she would do slightly better among women.
Comes now a Newsweek Poll by the respected Princeton Survey Research Associates (here) which puts some meat on the bones for those of us who do not have access to all the crosstabs from the Pennsylvania exit poll.
Lo and behold, we find that Obama runs exactly as well against McCain as does Clinton (47-44% for him; 48-45% for her) but that the composition of their vote is -- for now -- quite different.
Clinton does do somewhat better among Democrats against McCain than Obama does. She beats McCain 81-13 and he beats him 75-16 among Democrats. But Obama does better among Republicans (with 10-85% versus 7-89% for Clinton) and with Independents, among whom he beats McCain 45-43% while she trails 44-45%.
Importantly, while Clinton runs better against McCain among the poor and working-class whites who comprise about a third of the voters in the general election, Obama runs better against McCain among the middle- and upper-income voters who make up the other two-thirds of the general election voters.
This is what analysts like Ron Brownstein and Peter Hart have been talking about when they say Clinton's base is deeper in the Democratic Party, but Obama's is wider in the general electorate.
Moreover, while Obama's favorable/unfavorable rating is 53-40% among registered voters, and McCain's is 51-41%, Clinton's is a negative 47-49%. And while 40% of the voters say there is no chance they would vote for Obama in November, 43% say the same about Clinton.
On a variety of measures, Clinton does better than Obama among poor and working-class voters, while he does better among middle- and upper-income voters. However, even lower-income white voters say Obama is "down-to-earth" as compared by "elitist" by a margin of 53-25%.
But in testimony to the effectiveness of the campaign to refer to Barack Hussein Obama, 13% of all voters and 16% of lower-income whites think Obama is a Muslim.
If Obama wins the nomination -- which is the only outcome for the Democrats that will not leave their party in shreds -- McCain and his allies will not just throw the kitchen sink at him, they'll throw every sink they can find from the bathroom, the laundry room and the garage -- just as they would at Clinton (from Whitewater and the Rose Law Firm to Travelgate and Bosnian sniper fire).
But unless he is so crippled by Clinton before he has a chance to face McCain head-on -- and there's a real question about the Clintons' intentions here -- there is no sound basis on which to base the argument that he would be a less effective standard-bearer for the Democrats than would the much-despised former first lady.