New Poll Weakens Clinton Supporters' Electoral College Argument

A poll in California shows more voters have a positive view of Obama despite Clinton's win in the state


Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton

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SAN FRANCISCO—While Hillary Clinton tries to fight her way from behind in the Democratic presidential race, pouring millions of dollars into a last-ditch effort in the Pennsylvania primary, some of her supporters have begun suggesting a novel approach to selecting the nominee—and ending the current political deadlock. Instead of relying on the number of delegates the candidates have won (where Obama enjoys a small lead), the popular vote (which Obama leads by about 700,000 votes), or the number of states won (Obama's 27 trumps her 14), Sen. Evan Bayh, a Clinton backer, suggested this week that the nominee should be selected using another measure: the number of electoral votes the candidates have acquired. "Who carried the states with the most Electoral College votes is an important factor to consider because, ultimately, that's how we choose the president of the United States," Senator Bayh of Indiana said on CNN recently. Using this standard, Clinton, by carrying states like Texas, Ohio, and California, would have tallied a total of 219 Electoral College votes at this point in the race. Obama's wins in smaller states would have garnered him only 202.

A poll released today in California, the home of 55 electoral votes, the most of any state, underscores some of the weaknesses of this new electoral methodology—and serves as a reminder, experts say, of just how difficult it may be to determine a clear winner in the divided Democratic race, even in the states that have already voted.

On Super Tuesday, Clinton won the Golden State's primary by a margin of 52-to-43, surprising political experts with her dominance among Latinos, women, and older voters, in particular. Obama seemed to be unable to break through this electoral firewall. But in a new survey of more than 2,000 California voters, released today by the Public Policy Institute of California, an independent research group based in San Francisco, Obama appears to have experienced a significant bump since then. Over a month after voting in the primary, more Democrats here now say they have a positive view of Obama than of Clinton (78 percent to 74 percent)—a shift, experts say, that may be even larger than it appears, since much of Obama's support in the primary came from independents. Decline-to-state voters, who represent a sizable voting block in California, continue to flock to his campaign (57 percent have a favorable view of Obama, compared with 47 percent for McCain and only 35 percent for Clinton). Overall, more than 6 in 10 voters of all political stripes say they view Obama favorably, compared with 45 percent for Clinton. If the general election were held today, the poll indicates that Obama, not Clinton, would do better here: He polls at 49-to-40 percent over McCain, while Clinton-McCain is a statistical tie (46 percent of voters say they would support Clinton; 43 percent for McCain).

The Bayh approach, in other words—which assumes that because Clinton won the primary in California, she not only still enjoys the support of most voters in the state but would be more likely to win the state's electoral votes in the general election—seems flawed. "There's been a shift, no question about it," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State University-Los Angeles. "A lot of Democrats, who were once supporters of Hillary's—not bedrock supporters but voted for her on February 5—now they're leaving her."

It's worth noting, experts say, that the poll was conducted during the week of March 11, one of the roughest stretches Obama has experienced in his campaign, as he faced a barrage of questions about race and his relationship with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In spite of all the bad publicity, California voters still seem to be moving toward him—or at least away from Clinton. "That makes it all the more remarkable," says Regalado.

The Clinton campaign can't be blamed for trying to swing for the electoral fences, analysts say, but the challenges it faces appear to be growing ever more formidable, even, it seems, in some of the states she's already won. "People are getting tired of the contentiousness of the campaign," says Regalado. "Almost nobody except for Clinton supporters and Clinton herself wants to see this play out all the way into August."