7/30/2007

Hillary Clinton: Let the Buyer Beware

Hillary Clinton has generally been leading almost every poll among Democratic voters since polling began for the 2008 presidential cycle. She generally performs 10-15 percentage points better than her closest rival, Barack Obama, who polls about 10-15 points better than 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

Clinton has several institutional and personal strengths that make her very difficult to defeat. First of all, she benefits from high name recognition. Everybody knows her so well that they often refer to her the same way they refer to "Rush" or "Paris." In other words, if you say "Hillary," everyone knows who you're talking about. This is a big deal because for voters who don't follow presidential politics so closely, name recognition alone may be the factor that determines who they vote for in the confines of the voting booth. Democratic voters don't know who Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are, for example. But they do know Hillary, so they'll often vote for her just because they "know" who she is.

Secondly, she has the immensely popular Bill Clinton available to campaign and conduct fundraisers for her. Many voters view Hillary as an extension of the former president, so there's a sense of loyalty to him that keeps voters in her camp. And most voters would agree that compared to the Bush presidency, Bill Clinton doesn't look so bad after all.

Third, the field is too crowded. With eight Democratic candidates in all, it is too difficult for the less established candidates to distinguish themselves. Clinton has the luxury of not having to deliver a campaign-changing one-liner during a debate in order to generate a spark. Bill Richardson needs to generate such a spark. In other words, the longer the other candidates merely "do okay" in the debates, the more the Democratic field will look like "Hillary and the gang," which only works to Clinton's advantage.

Fourth, her fundraising totals are incredible. With all the cash she has available to her, she can afford to compete seriously in many states while hiring and retaining top talent regarding campaign managers, public relations staff, and consultants. Candidates on shoestring budgets like Joe Biden can't afford to do this and have to target their battlegrounds more carefully.

A fifth and final advantage Clinton has is her sense of inevitability. One gets the sense that her campaign has taken on a "get on board, get out of the way, or get run over" aura. She's so far ahead in the polls in almost every state, she has the name recognition, she has the former president on her side, and she has the cash on hand to make her a political juggernaut. So perhaps her confidence is justified.

But the Democrats should think carefully before they anoint Clinton as their nominee for the general election. The 2008 political landscape provides a better than even chance that the Democrats can wrest control of the White House away from the Republicans, especially since the GOP candidates are generally weaker this time around (hence all the polls showing dissatisfaction among Republican voters with their presidential choices). This is a very winnable election for the Democrats, but I believe they run a very real risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by nominating Hillary Clinton.

But why?

For starters, there's her name recognition, which I listed as a strength earlier. However, her name recognition is only a strength for the Democratic primary. It's an undeniable liability in the general election. People already know who this woman is and they've pretty much made up their mind about her. You either love her or you hate her; there are not a lot of persuadable voters left. This automatically restricts your playing field.

The current president provides my second reason why a Clinton nomination would likely lead to heartbreak in 2008. Republicans have often lamented that Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother and the former governor of Florida, would be a formidable candidate this year if his last name were different. Democrats are sick of the Bush brand. If you even mention the name Bush, Democrats (and probably a wide swath of independents) will likely recoil in anger. But do Democrats not realize that the prospect of another Clinton in the Oval Office evokes similar ire and consternation among Republican voters? GOP voters are not particularly energized this presidential cycle. The prospect of Hillary Clinton in the White House would only galvanize them and drive up Republican turnout.

The third reason is particularly important: Exactly what state could Hillary Clinton win that John Kerry or Al Gore couldn't win? A Clinton nomination automatically means the electoral map shrinks from the get-go because so many states would be out of play (particularly in the South and West). Clinton's presidential hopes would hinge on Florida, Missouri, and the Upper Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin). That's it. And Florida, Missouri, and Ohio all voted Republican in the last election. A smaller electoral map means spending more time on defense. More time on defense means less time and resources the Republicans have to spend protecting their home turf.

On a related note, Hillary Clinton is undoubtedly a polarizing figure. Even if she were to win the presidency in 2008, half of the nation would automatically "strongly approve" of her performance while the other half would "strongly disapprove" when pollsters contact them. Under the George Bush presidency, the United States has become exceedingly polarized. This whole Red State/Blue State dichotomy is very real and very unfortunate. It would be nice if Clinton could actually bridge the divide and bring Americans together, but that's not going to happen. And it could even open up the door to Jeb Bush in 2012, thus further inflaming fears of two dynastic political families holding the reins of power for potentially 40 years (since George H.W. Bush's vice presidency under Ronald Reagan in 1980). When will voters say enough is enough?

The Democrats have at least two or three very powerful candidates in Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd. These candidates (especially Richardson) would be an electoral nightmare for the GOP as they find themselves having to defend Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and Florida. A Richardson candidacy in particular would also allow the Democrats to trump the Republicans on foreign policy and gun rights (if the opponent is Rudy Giuliani--can you imagine a Democrat being better than a Republican on guns in a presidential election?) without being tarred with the "tax-hiking New England liberal" label.

How does a Clinton nomination intimidate Republicans? By being able to dig up dirt on them? By being able to outmaneuver them rhetorically? Clinton certainly has the loyal foot soldiers and opposition researchers available to do her dirty work for her, but who really wins in such a scenario? Clinton might, but America sure won't.

Choose wisely, Democrats.

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Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.