THE BLOG
04/01/2008 01:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clinton Rationale for Electability Doesn't Hold Water: History Proves the Ability to Win a State Primary Is Unrelated to General Election Success

The Clinton campaign's only remaining argument for her superior "electability" rests on the contention that her ability to win primaries in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania makes her more "electable" in the general election.

There are many reasons why this argument is fallacious, including the fact that, in the general election, Obama would place many marginal states into play that Hillary would have no chance to win.

But the argument is erroneous, chiefly because a candidate's ability to win a state primary has virtually nothing to do with his or her ability to win the state in a general election contest.

Just look at some examples from history. In 1988 Dukakis came in third in the Iowa caucuses. Yet Iowa was one of only nine states that he ultimately won in the general election. That year Dukakis won the Democratic primaries in Florida and Texas where no one could imagine he would have been the stronger general election candidate in the Democratic field. He soundly lost them both in November.

In 2004, John Kerry clinched the nomination with big wins over John Edwards in Tennessee and Virginia. He won Tennessee by 15 points, and beat Edwards in Virginia 51% to 25%. Does anyone really believe that Kerry was a stronger candidate than Edwards -- a southerner -- against George Bush in Virginia or Tennessee? Kerry lost Virginia 54% to 45% in the general. He was trounced in Tennessee, 57% to 43%.

Examples abound where the winner of a primary is not the stronger candidate to win a general election. Why? Because the voters who affect the outcomes of general elections are largely different people from those who affect the outcomes of primaries.

In general elections, only two groups of people affect the outcome. First are persuadable voters, who always vote in generals, but are switch-hitters. They vote for Republicans in one election and Democrats in the next. And they rarely vote in primaries.

The other group is mobilizable voters. Democratic mobilizables would vote Democratic, but have to be motivated to go to the polls. Sometimes these mobilizable voters can be motivated to vote in a particularly exciting primary. But most don't vote in primaries -- and only rarely in general elections.

Polls show that almost 20% of Clinton supporters and Obama supporters currently say they would refuse to vote for the other candidate in the general election. But history shows that though this may be true in the thick of the primary battle, most of these will in fact vote Democratic in November.

One of the specialties of our firm, the Strategic Consulting Group, is conducting high-intensity field programs for Democratic candidates. In race after race, we find that, with great certainty, we can assume that Democratic primary voters will vote Democratic and Republican primary voters will vote Republican in a general election. Some mobilizable Democratic voters can be found among primary voters who have a history of voting only in certain elections. But most persuadables and mobilizables are found among those who never set foot in a primary polling place.

In general elections, persuadable and mobilizable voters are mainly people who pay much less attention to politics than do primary voters.

The messages used to convince persuadable voters, or to motivate mobilizables, are generally different. With persuadable voters these messages focus on candidate qualities. Persuadables in general elections focus less on issues than primary voters. They are much more heavily driven by the personal qualities of candidates.

General election mobilizable voters are even less engaged. Many feel a generalized sense of powerlessness that convinces them that their votes will have little effect on their lives. Many are young people who are so caught up in their personal lives that politics seems irrelevant. Messages that motivate these voters focus on the voter, not the candidate. In particular, these messages need to give mobilizable voters a sense of their own empowerment.

The one message that works with both persuadable and mobilizable voters is inspiration. Inspiration is what gives people that feeling of empowerment. Inspiration makes persuadable voters feel good about a candidate who inspires them. It also motivates the mobilizables to act.

Barack Obama's ability to inspire is the quality that makes him such an electable general election candidate. Most candidates are really successful either at convincing persuadables, or motivating mobilizables. Barack Obama can do both. I believe he can simultaneously reach out to independent voters and expand the electorate by motivating young people and African Americans to vote at levels we have not seen in modern American politics.

Hillary Clinton's ability to win primaries in "Big States" really has no bearing on her ability to win a general election. The current general election polls show both Clinton and Obama running even with or slightly behind McCain. But campaigns are like reality TV sagas: the plot develops over time. When the primaries are over and a new story line develops, Obama's ability to inspire will make him a much more formidable protagonist in epic battle with McCain than his Democratic rival

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.