If you look at national polls for the general election, the pairings between John McCain and Barack Obama and between McCain and Hillary Clinton look just about the same. In today's RealClearPolitics roundup of the latest polls, McCain leads Obama 46 to 45 percent and leads Hillary Clinton 47 to 46. The Clinton campaign is making much of how Obama is no longer running more strongly against McCain than its candidate is, as has been the case for most of the year. That may be the result of the airing of the ranting and bigoted remarks of Obama's longtime pastor and spiritual mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; no one knows how lasting an effect they will have.
But in any case, the numbers weaken the Obama campaign's argument to superdelegates that he would be a stronger general election candidate. He still has more upside potential than Clinton, who has long polarized the electorate. But the Wright tapes also show that he has more downside potential. Today's polls are not necessarily an indicator of who will be the stronger general election candidate. That requires a judgment about whether Obama will achieve his upside potential or suffer his downside potential, a judgment on which reasonable people can and do differ. It's a question the answer to which is unknowable, until and unless Obama is nominated.
But recent polls do shed light on another question: Which candidate would be stronger in which states? For while the two Democrats do run an identical and statistically insignificant 1 percentage point behind McCain, they run very differently in different states. The strongest evidence for this comes from SurveyUSA's polls, released March 6, of Obama and Clinton against McCain in all 50 states (they didn't bother with the District of Columbia) and from polls of the two Democrats against McCain conducted by Scott Rasmussen in 20 states, most of which were seriously contested in 2000 and 2004.
SurveyUSA shows the electoral votes of 15 states being cast for different parties in the 50 states; these include two electoral votes in Nebraska (the result was close enough there that SUSA estimates that Obama carried two congressional districts while losing the state). By way of comparison, only three states switched parties between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections (Iowa and New Mexico switched to Bush, New Hampshire away from him). I'm listing below, by region, the states with their number of electoral votes in which either Clinton's margin was 5 percentage points or more above Obama's and the same for those states in which Obama's margin was 4 percentage points or more above Clinton's.
|MA 12 +11||AR 6 +31|
|NY 31 + 8||WV 5 +23|
|PA 21 + 6||TN 11 +16|
|NJ 15 + 5||OK 7 +15|
|FL 27 +11|
|KY 8 +11|
|GA 13 + 8|
|79 electoral votes||77 electoral votes|
Altogether, we're talking about 156 electoral votes. Some of these states—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Georgia—look to be well beyond Clinton's reach. But in some cases—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Florida—she has apparently sewed up states that would seem to be problematical for Obama. (About Florida, I'm suspicious; other polls have it going for McCain against either Democrat.)
What do these states have in common? They fit into two categories: the Northeast and the Appalachian diaspora from West Virginia (or western Pennsylvania) southwest to Oklahoma. In other words, two historically Democratic areas: the Andrew Jackson coalition, you might say. Either Hillary Clinton has special strength with ethnic and Andy Jackson voters (as she certainly does in Arkansas), or Barack Obama has special weakness among them.
|VT 3 +24||NE 5 +24||UT 5 +27||VA 13 +10|
|CT 7 +11||ND 3 +23||HI 4 +26||TX 34 + 6|
|NH 4 +10||L 21 +18||ID 4 +23||NC 15 + 6|
|ME 4 + 8||IA 7 +14||AK 3 +17|
|IN 11 + 8||WA 11 +16|
|SD 3 + 8||CO 9 +15|
|WI 10 + 5||WY 3 +14|
|NV 5 +13|
|OR 7 +12|
|MT 3 +12|
|NM 5 + 7|
|18 electoral votes||60 electoral votes||59 electoral votes||62 electoral votes|
Altogether, we're looking at 199 electoral votes. Some are in Obama's home states—Illinois and Hawaii. Some of these states are clearly beyond his reach—Utah, Indiana, Arkansas, Wyoming, Montana. Some I'm skeptical about: I don't believe Obama will be competitive in Nebraska, carry North Dakota, or come within 1 percentage point in Texas (where he's not likely to do well with Latino voters). What do they have in common? Most are part of the New England diaspora, states settled originally by people of New England Yankee stock as colonies or by their descendants who fanned out into the northern Midwest, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountains. The exceptions are the three southern states, all of which have large and growing white-collar metropolitan populations.
Let me do a similar analysis of the Rasmussen 20 state results.
|NJ 15 +13||WA 11 + 9|
|MA 12 +12|
|27 electoral votes||9 electoral votes|
|CT 7 + 9||MN 10 +20||NV 5 +21||VA 13 + 5|
|WI 10 +13||CO 9 +14|
|IA 7 + 7||NM 5 +13|
|OR 7 +12|
|CA 55 + 8|
|7 electoral votes||27 electoral votes||81 electoral votes||13 electoral votes|
Altogether, states with 36 electoral votes show a Clinton advantage and states with 128 electoral votes show an Obama advantage. However, if you leave California aside, where Clinton has a pretty good lead over McCain, the states with an Obama advantage have 73 electoral votes. The patterns are similar here: Obama doing well in the New England diaspora plus Virginia, with special strength in states in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa) and Rocky Mountains (Nevada, New Mexico), which were closely contested in 2000 and 2004; Clinton doing well in ethnically diverse Northeast states (New Jersey, Massachusetts) plus, for reasons unclear to me, Washington. (Maybe it's because Washington has two female senators and a female governor.)
One might conclude from this that Obama would be a stronger general election candidate because he would put more states in play. But that conclusion is not compelled by the data. He's clearly weaker than Clinton in some states that Democrats think they need to carry. Moreover, more recent SurveyUSA polls in three states show Obama much weaker after the publicity about Wright. In Ohio, SUSA has Clinton leading McCain 50 to 44 percent, a slightly reduced lead from that in the 50-state survey, and McCain beating Obama 50 to 43 percent, a huge reversal of Obama's 50-40 lead in the 50-state survey. In Missouri, SurveyUSA shows McCain beating Clinton 48 to 46 but walloping Obama 53 to 39. In Kentucky, SurveyUSA shows McCain leading Clinton by an unsurprising 53-43 margin but thumping Obama 64-28. By way of comparison, Richard Nixon beat George McGovern in Kentucky in 1972 by 64 to 35. Obama may be a stronger candidate than Clinton in Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Iowa, but he looks far weaker in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Missouri. That leaves the Democratic superdelegates with a tough choice to make.