10/09/2007 03:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary's Achilles Heel: It's Not What You Think

Hillary Clinton's critics like to argue that her high polling negatives mean she's unelectable, and Gallup"s recent poll will reinforce that notion. But they're wrong. A Hillary Clinton candidacy may endanger the party's chances in 2008, but "negatives" aren't why. Although pollsters Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll write that Clinton is "one of a group of starkly polarizing figures" and Joe Biden's using those negatives as an argument against her candidacy, that's not her biggest obstacle.

It's all in the numbers, as Mark Penn would say. Being a "polarizing figure," even a "stark" one, won't necessarily prevent Hillary from becoming president. Those Americans who disapprove of her are a minority, and aren't an impassible barrier to victory. In fact, the Democrats weren't going to win most of their votes anyway. Instead, the gravest threat to Sen. Clinton's chances lies within her own party, and it's not disapproval -- it's lack of enthusiasm.

Like the song says, we're talking about the passion.

If Rove and the Republicans have demonstrated anything, it's that it only takes a tiny majority to win (excluding, of course, what Al Gore calls that "little known third category"). Can Hillary win with her high negatives? Absolutely. According to Gallup, 48 percent of the electorate has a negative opinion of her, 48 percent has a positive opinion, and the remaining 4 percent are in play.

That means she only needs to do two things. The first is to win over some of the 4 percent who are undecided about her, while perhaps changing the hearts and minds of a few disapproving voters along the way. She can do that. She's a feistier and more likable campaigner than some people realize, as she proved in upstate New York.

The other thing she needs to do is bring her base out to the polls, and that's where she could endanger her party's prospects. Without turnout she may well lose, despite the generalized disapproval of the GOP these days. And she could sink a lot of down-ticket Democratic candidates in the process. To paraphrase the first Clinton team: It's the turnout, stupid. If Hillary can't keep Democratic voting levels at their recent record highs, Democrats are in trouble.

Those highly-publicized polls that show Hillary defeating Rudy Giuliani aren't just premature. More importantly, they fail to address the voter turnout issue. That renders them pretty much meaningless, although they'll get a great deal of attention anyway.

Getting out the vote has been critical to the last two elections. More people voted for Al Gore in 2000 than for any Democratic candidate in history, and more people voted for John Kerry in 2004 than for Gore and Ralph Nader combined. That means Democrats are asking themselves the wrong question. Instead of wondering whether she can overcome her negatives, they should be asking themselves how many of those favorably-inclined voters will bother going to the polls.

Getting out the vote is not the science of overcoming negative perception. It's the art of channeling passion. First, the party's base must become enthusiastic enough to participate in formal and informal GOTV networks, especially in swing states. Secondly, those networks must be able to persuade as many of the party's reliable voters as possible to go to the polls.

The GOP is likely to view the 2008 election as a threat to its future viability, and will pull out all the stops to get its base to the polls. (Recent threats by evangelicals to mount a third-party candidate are simply ploys for more leverage - which they will get.) They'll be unencumbered by a candidate whose name is Bush. In fact, unless McCain is the nominee, their candidate will be relatively untainted by association with Iraq. The differences between her position and her opponents may appear to be little more than nuance -- and he (we know it will be a he) will be able to say he never changed his position on it. Ironically, Sen. Clinton could well find herself more closely entangled with the Iraq debacle than her opponent.

Her opponent will certainly work to hang the war around her neck. The GOP candidate will remind the public that Sen. Clinton not only voted for the war resolution but opposed the Levin Amendment that required the President to use diplomacy first. So much for the argument that "I thought I was giving him the leverage to negotiate." And Republicans will remind voters that Sen. Clinton not only supported the war resolution, but claimed on the Senate floor that Saddam was "giving aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members." There was never credible evidence for that.

As for the GOP, they're probably already ordering more flip-flops for the Convention. They'll certainly repeat this line from a recent Clinton biography over and over: "Hillary had been against the war before she was for it -- before she was against it all over again." And they won't just use the issue to make her appear indecisive. They understand the importance of turnout, so they'll do everything they can to capitalize on disillusionment with her war position to discourage and de-motivate core Democratic voters.

Will that disillusionment be enough to create another credible third-party threat, either from Ralph Nader or someone else on the Left? Right now there's little evidence to suggest it will, although that could change. But it won't take a third party to bring Hillary and the party down. All that's needed is for some fraction of the Democratic base to stay home on November 4. Here's how that could happen:

Base Democrats: Gallup says that Sen. Clinton does extremely well in this group. But how many of these voters will go to the polls, participate in vote drives, or contribute money to the campaign? Their core issues are the Iraq war and healthcare, and they're likely to be discouraged about the former. Will healthcare be enough of an issue for her to bring progressives out to the polls?

Youth Vote: Gallup's figures show less support for Sen. Clinton among younger Democratic voters than among Democrats as a whole. First- and second-time eligible voters will never have known a time when the President's name wasn't either Bush or Clinton. That's not a recipe for excitement, and young voters will be crucial for the Dems.

Democratic-Leaning Independents: Sen. Clinton's approval ratings are a relatively weak 63 percent among independents who typically lean Democratic. While these voters rarely participate in GOTV drives, they're a prime target for them. If they're unmoved by the head of the ticket, the Democratic Party is in trouble.

The "Populist" Vote: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan could all be swing states in 2008. If Sen. Clinton comes to be too closely identified with lobbyists and corporate politics, she could fail to muster enough enthusiasm among blue-collar voters who have been hit hard by globalization.

There are limitations to polls like Gallup's, of course, and too much can be made of their results. Respondents were only allowed to rate the Senator as "favorable," "unfavorable," or "no opinion." For purposes of predicting turnout it would be more useful to rate candidates on a 1-to-10 scale.

Predicting voter turnout is the art of predicting passion, so poll numbers are evocative rather than conclusive. Still, these numbers provide a glimpse into the real threat the Democrats could face if Sen. Clinton is the nominee. It should be taken seriously by party leaders, primary voters, and Sen. Clinton's own strategists. A failure to meet or exceed 2004 voter turnout could be disastrous for the Democrats. A number of members of the "class of 2006," who won victory in traditionally Republican districts, may face two-year Congressional careers if Hillary leads the ticket.

Sen. Clinton's recent actions, including her vote for the Kyl Amendment, indicate she's still taking the base for granted. She could find herself mobilizing enough primary voters to take the nomination, without laying the groundwork for massive turnout in November. That could be a fatal mistake for the 2008 election, and it's something Democrats should consider when they choose their candidate.

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