Lanny J. Davis
Former special counsel to President Clinton, and supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign
After the votes are in from Puerto Rico tomorrow and South Dakota and Montana on Tuesday, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will be able to make a facts-based case that they represent a significant majority of grass-roots Democrats. Chances are Sens. Obama and Clinton will virtually split the more than 4,400 delegates—including Florida and Michigan—elected by more than 34 million people over the past five months.
Sen. Clinton has already won the most votes, but there is controversy over including the over 300,000 votes from Michigan, since Sen. Obama was not on the ballot (by his own choice). But if Sen. Clinton wins a substantial victory in Puerto Rico tomorrow—with an expected record turnout exceeding two million voters—she could well end up with more popular votes than Sen. Obama, even if Michigan’s primary votes are excluded.
Worst case, she could come out with a 2% deficit in elected pledged delegates. But that gap can be made up, if most of the remaining 200 or so unpledged superdelegates decide to support Sen. Clinton as the strongest candidate against John McCain—or if others committed to Sen. Obama decide to change their minds for the same reason. A number of superdelegates previously committed to Sen. Clinton later announced support for Sen. Obama, so it’s certainly possible that, when confronted with growing evidence that Sen. Clinton is stronger than Sen. McCain, they might switch back.
The final argument for Hillary comes down to three points—with points one and two leading to the third.
First, Sen. Clinton is more experienced and qualified to be president than is Sen. Obama. This is not to say Sen. Obama cannot be a good, even great, president. I believe he can. But Sen. Clinton spent eight years in the White House. She was not a traditional first lady. She was involved in policy and debate on virtually every major domestic and foreign policy decision of the Clinton presidency, both “in” and “outside” the room with her husband. She has been a U.S. senator for eight years and has a record of legislative accomplishments, including as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
With no disrespect or criticism intended, Sen. Obama has been an Illinois state senator for eight years and a U.S. senator for just four years. He has, understandably, fewer legislative accomplishments than Sen. Clinton. That’s just a fact.
Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that Sen. Clinton would be less vulnerable to criticism from Sen. McCain on the “experience” issue.
Second, Sen. Clinton’s position on health care gives her an advantage over Sen. McCain. Her proposal for universally mandated health care based primarily on private insurance and individual choices is a stark contrast to Sen. McCain’s total reliance on private market insurance, HMOs or emergency rooms for the 45 million or more uninsured. Sen. Obama’s position, while laudable in its objective, does not mandate universal care and, arguably, won’t challenge Sen. McCain as effectively as will Sen. Clinton’s plan.
Despite the fact that Sen. Obama’s campaign made the Iraq war a crucial issue in the Iowa caucuses and early primaries, there has never been a significant difference between his position and Sen. Clinton’s.
Sen. Obama deserves credit for opposing military intervention in Iraq while he was running for the state senate in early 2002.
But in 2004, Sen. Obama said he “did not know” how he would have voted on the war resolution had he been a senator at the time. That summer he told the Chicago Tribune: “There’s not much of a difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage” of the Iraq War. (This is a statement that Sen. Clinton would not have made.) While he served in the Senate, he voted 84 out of 85 times the same as Sen. Clinton on Iraq-war related votes. The only exception is when he supported President Bush’s position on the promotion of a general that Sen. Clinton opposed.
Third and finally, there is recent hard data showing that, at least at the present time, Sen. Clinton is a significantly stronger candidate against Sen. McCain among the general electorate (as distinguished from the more liberal Democratic primary and caucus electorate).
According to Gallup’s May 12-25 tracking polling of 11,000 registered voters in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., Sen. Clinton is running stronger against Sen. McCain in the 20 states where she can claim popular-vote victory in the primaries and caucuses. In contrast, Sen. Obama runs no better against Sen. McCain than does Sen. Clinton in the 28 states plus D.C. where he has prevailed. “On this basis,” Gallup concludes: “Clinton appears to have the stronger chance of capitalizing on her primary strengths in the general election.”
The 20 states, Gallup points out, not only encompass more than 60% of the nation’s voters, but “represent more than 300 Electoral College votes while Obama’s 28 states and the District of Columbia represent only 224 Electoral College votes.” Sen. Clinton leads Sen. McCain in these 20 states by seven points (50%-43%), while Sens. Obama and McCain are pretty much tied. But in the 26 states plus D.C. that Sen. Obama carried in the primaries/caucuses, he and Sen. Clinton are both statistically tied with Sen. McCain (Clinton 45%-McCain 47%; Obama 45%-McCain 46%).
Gallup’s state-by-state polling in seven key battleground “purple” states also shows Sen. Clinton winning cumulatively in these states by a six-point margin (49%-43%) over Sen. McCain, while Sen. Obama loses to Sen. McCain by three points—a net advantage of 9% for Sen. Clinton. These key seven states—constituting 105 electoral votes—are Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Mexico, Arkansas, Florida and Michigan.
Meanwhile, Sen. Obama holds about an equal advantage over Sen. McCain in six important swing states that he carried in the primaries and caucuses—Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. But these constitute less than half—54—of the electoral votes of the larger states in which Sen. Clinton is leading.
The latest state-by-state battleground polls (published May 21-23) by other respected polling organizations verify Gallup’s findings that Sen. Clinton is significantly stronger against Sen. McCain in the key states that a Democrat must win to gain the presidency. According to various poll data within the last 10 days:
*Pennsylvania: Sen. Clinton leads McCain 50%-39%; Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain are effectively tied.
*Ohio: Sen. Clinton leads Sen. McCain 48%-41%, Sen. Obama is down 44%-40%.
*Florida: Sen. Clinton leads Sen. McCain 47%-41%; Sen. McCain leads Sen. Obama 50%-40%. (Sen. Clinton has a net advantage of 16 points!)
*North Carolina: Despite a substantial primary victory, Sen. Obama is down 8% vs. Sen. McCain, (51%-43%), while Sen. Clinton leads by 6% (49%-43%).
*Nevada: Sen. Clinton up 5%, Sen. Obama down 6%.
Even the theory that Sen. Obama can open up significant numbers of “red” states has not been borne out by recent polling. For example: in Virginia, which Sen. Obama won substantially in the Feb. 12 Democratic primary, he is currently down in at least one recent, respected poll by a significant 9% margin—one point greater than the 8% margin Sen. Clinton is behind Sen. McCain.
Finally, one unfortunate argument is making the rounds lately to convince superdelegates to go for Sen. Obama. That is the prediction that if Sen. Obama is not the nominee, African-American and other passionate Obama supporters will conclude that the nomination had been “stolen” and will walk out of the convention or stay at home. On the other side are the many women and others strongly committed to Sen. Clinton promising that if she is denied the nomination, they will refuse to vote for Sen. Obama.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are progressive, pro-civil rights, pro-affirmative action, pro-choice Democrats. Neither Obama supporters nor Clinton supporters who care about the issues, the Supreme Court, and the need to begin withdrawing from Iraq can truly mean they will actively or passively help Sen. McCain get elected.
Threats of walkouts or stay-at-homes by good Democrats are not the answer, nor should they be a factor in superdelegate decisions.
But there is one possible scenario that avoids disappointment and frustration by passionate supporters of both candidates, that combines the strengths of one with the strengths of the other, and that virtually guarantees the election of a Democratic president in 2008:
A Clinton-Obama or an Obama-Clinton ticket.
Editor's Note: This essay appears in today's Wall Street Journal.