Looking Ahead to the General Election - Part 2: Polls, Favorability and Electability
From time to time, every candidate's campaign puts out talking points touting their electability against their likely general election (GE) opponent based on polls taken at a particular moment in time. This is standard spin and I pay virtually no attention to this. There's a reason why.
Polls this early are close to useless.
Here's an example from June 1992 (emphasis mine):
In a three-way race, 32 percent of the registered voters said they would prefer Mr. Bush, 30 percent Mr. Perot and 24 percent Mr. Clinton. Since the last Times/CBS Poll, conducted in early May, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton have slipped and Mr. Perot has gained.
In a head-to-head race, Mr. Bush and Mr. Perot would be essentially tied, 42 percent to 43 percent. And in a head-to-head contest with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush is ahead, but not significantly, given the survey's margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points: Mr. Bush is at 45 percent, while Mr. Clinton is at 40 percent.
Here's another example from August 2000 (emphasis mine):
Vice President Al Gore is supported by just 39 percent of likely voters, compared to for 53 percent Texas Gov. George W. Bush in a hypothetical four-way presidential race, according to the latest CNN/Time poll conducted on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Bush's big advantage remains Gore's relative unpopularity: more than six in ten Americans have a favorable opinion of the Texas governor, while barely half of all Americans have a favorable view of Gore. Most Americans say that the vice president is not someone they admire, and only 42 percent consider him a strong and decisive leader. Nearly half say he is too close to President Clinton, although that number is down significantly since 1999.
Public opinion is split over whether Gore's candidacy is a creation of Clinton or based on Gore's own qualifications for the job. However, most Americans believe that Clinton's record on the economy and other issues is a good indication of how Gore would do as president -- an advantage for Gore, because more than three-quarters think things are going well in the country.
In the 2008 election, if Sen. Obama becomes the eventual nominee, it is much more likely than not that his favorables, especially against Sen. McCain, would go down somewhat as we head into the general election. This is because most of the country doesn't really know what his actual voting record and experience is and what his positions and contradictions are, not to mention other aspects of his career and associations. The RNC and Sen. McCain (who is a media darling especially given his "maverick" status, "national security" credentials and longtime experience in the Senate) will make sure those aspects get a lot more play - in ways that are advantageous to the GOP. So, any benefits Sen. Obama might be experiencing due to the hagiographic media coverage he has received and will continue to receive during the Democratic primary will not necessarily carry over into the general election. As moderate-to-conservative independents and Republicans - who don't know a whole lot more about Sen. Obama today than his "unity" pitch and great speeches - get more thoroughly exposed to his actual stances on issues that matter to them, there will be less, not more support from that demographic than he gets today. (Note, for example, that in the Republican primary, McCain has been winning amongst conservatives who are anti-war and detest George Bush - even over Ron Paul; this is an important dynamic that I will return to in a future post. My earlier post - "The Quiz Show on Iraq" is one of many indicators on why this dynamic might be in play and why Sen. Obama's claim that his Iraq position will work to his advantage in the GE is likely to turn out to be just optimistic spin).
If Sen. Clinton becomes the nominee, she will go into the general election with at least two significant advantages over Sen. Obama (there are more as I will lay out in subsequent posts). First, I expect she will have far more of the progressive "netroots" and "elite" lined up behind her than she has today (I'm naturally excluding predictable Clinton haters like Frank Rich and his ilk - people who will continue their irrational hatred and lying about Clinton just as they did against against Gore when he ran against Bush in 2000). This will partially help in rebutting false stories and negative memes about her in the media, unlike the situation today where many in the "netroots" and "elite" either reinforce some of the media's memes or are indifferent because they are either neutral or supporting Sen. Obama. Second, unlike Sen. Obama, she starts with a known past and record - very little about her possible negatives is unknown to the broader voting population of independents and Republicans. This presents a situation where, as the broader population gets to know the real Hillary Clinton, her favorables could easily rise somewhat going into the GE as people who have been fed on a Fox News type diet for a long time wake up and see a different, more positive and more acceptable Hillary Clinton than the one portrayed by her most vehement and irrational critics. This was one of the dynamics that helped her win in even the most Republican counties in New York state during her Senate race and has helped generate fairly impressive approval ratings for her amongst independents and Republicans in NY. (It is no surprise that Republicans both hate her and fear her as a formidable candidate).
In subsequent posts, I will discuss other factors such as demographics, national security/Iraq, and the economy.