Now that John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is increasingly focused on who can beat him.
Team Obama is psyched about several hypothetical "head-to-head" surveys – which are often unreliable – that show him faring much better against the hawkish Arizona Senator. The trend is evident in a battery of recent polls, and Obama aides have been blasting reporters with a CNN segment on the results. So Clinton dispatched her top aides to discuss the darker side of electability this week. Pollster Mark Penn made Hillary’s case in a conference call and 1,100-word memo, but since current data does not support her electability, he issued predictions instead. His five key points were:
The GOP Attack Machine Will Redefine the Democratic Candidate; Hillary Has Withstood That Process.
Sen. McCain Will Run on National Security; Hillary Wins That Argument.
Sen. Obama’s Negatives Will Rise; Hillary’s Are Already Factored In.
The Resiliency of Sen. Obama’s Coalition Will Be Tested; Hillary’s Coalition Is Stronger.
Current Poll Numbers Don’t Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms. (emphasis added)
Plenty of pollsters are known for bluster over data, so maybe Penn should get candor points for not even mentioning numbers in his five points. In a charitable comparison of the campaigns’ arguments, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza concludes that "the central difference in the electability appeals by the two campaigns is temporal." You know, like one appeal is based on today’s data, and the other is based on a crystal ball. Cillizza continues:
The Obama campaign argues that the way to best understand who is the more electable is to look at current polling and past results to see who leads the likely Republican nominee and who is better able to lure crucial independents to the Democratic cause. The present is what matters, says Obama. For Clinton, it’s the future that’s the issue. Sure, they argue, Obama may be ahead right now, but Republicans have only begun to define him, a process that would strip away much of his independent support and leave him on the losing end of a race against McCain.
But wait — for the vast majority of this campaign, Clinton aides touted her huge lead in past and current polls as proof of her "inevitability." Most independent pollsters and journalists swallowed that line, reporting items like this: "The conclusion drawn by the polling experts appears to be: Forget about Iowa being close, Clinton’s inevitable, she’s going to be the Democratic nominee." (That’s from December.)