Clinton vs. Obama: Rationales for Their Nominations

Seeing that John McCain has all but officially snared the Republican presidential nomination, most of the political action is taking place on the Democratic side of the ledger between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. While last week's contests were newsworthy because of how they gave new life to Hillary Clinton's campaign, they were also important for another reason. Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas, combined with Obama's victory in the Wyoming caucuses, perfectly illustrate the dilemma confronting Democratic voters. How this dilemma gets resolved depends entirely on how Democrats choose to answer a simple question: Do they want to solidify their base, or grow it?

Hillary Clinton has won the following states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Her victories in Michigan and Florida are illegitimate.

Barack Obama has won the following states: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington DC, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. He is also well positioned to win the Mississippi contest next week.

In short, Clinton has won most of the large states, most of which have voted Democratic in recent presidential elections. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has won most of the smaller states, many of which have traditionally voted Republican.

Clinton argues that she should be the nominee because she could carry the states that Democrats absolutely must carry in order to win the presidency. This is a valid argument, as any Democrat who can't hang onto California, New Jersey, or Connecticut will almost certainly be in for a landslide defeat. (Clinton's possible November finish is illustrated by this Survey USA electoral map.)

Obama counters that he can expand the electoral map and potentially encroach on Republican turf. He could make Republicans not take the South for granted and potentially turn purple states like Colorado, Virginia, and Missouri blue. (Obama's possible November finish is illustrated by this Survey USA electoral map.)

Both candidates offer their own unique paths to victory in November. Clinton will not win in a rout. But at the same time, she has a high base of support that will prevent her from being routed by John McCain. Clinton will likely finish with anywhere from 48-52% of the vote. She's the safe choice. Voters know what they're getting with Hillary Clinton--warts, controversy, and all. Her November strategy will basically be to keep all the states John Kerry won and focus mainly on Florida, Missouri, and Ohio. In other words, it would be a real political knife fight in a few purple states.

Barack Obama has a much wider trading range. When he's at his best, he is commonly compared to JFK. His routs in Wisconsin and Virginia suggest that he could steamroll John McCain in November. However, when Obama is flat, voters pay more attention to criticisms of him being risky, nothing but fluff, unable to close the deal, or too inexperienced. This is when Democrats fear that Obama is more like Jimmy Carter than JFK. If this is indeed true, Obama's support could crater, Reagan Democrats would flock to McCain in droves, and more liberal Democrats would stay home. This could lead to losing more states than John Kerry did. Will Obama win with 55% of the vote, or will he lose with 45%?

So whose argument is more credible? Both Clinton and Obama make good points, but their arguments both have a few flaws. To start, a lot of Clinton's victories came in closed primaries in which only Democrats could participate. Her appeal among independents and Republicans is considerably less than Obama's, so who's to say that she will be able to hold the same primary states she won in the general election?

Another point to consider is that some of these states are so Democratic that it wouldn't matter who the Democratic nominee was because no Republican would bother contesting them. Barack Obama did not win the New York or California primaries, but he almost certainly would win both states in a general election, and probably by double-digit margins. Democrats may be divided between Clinton and Obama now, but the prospect of a McCain presidency should force them to unite for the sake of their party and support whoever their party nominee may be in November.

The fact that the Republican race ended several weeks ago also may have inflated Clinton's support. Influential Republicans and conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, have told their listeners and followers to support Hillary Clinton in the primaries. While some of this may merely be political mischief to drag out the Democratic nomination fight or to even punish John McCain for being insufficiently conservative, it must be said that support from these non-Democrats likely pushed Clinton over the finish line more than once. Would Clinton have really won Ohio without conservatives' support?

Having said this, Obama's electoral arguments are not without flaws as well. For example, Obama has done very well in caucuses, which require well developed organization at the grassroots level. This organization paid off in Iowa, Wyoming, and other caucus states. However, by the same token, this organization at the local level should have put him over the top in some of the closer primary states as well. Texas is a unique case, as Obama won the caucuses there, but lost the primary.

Caucuses are time-consuming events that may provide Obama with a unique advantage. Clinton commonly criticizes the caucus format because many of her core supporters, such as blue-collar workers and seniors, are unable to either take half a day off from work or make it outside for a few hours to participate in a hectic, drawn out caucus. Primaries favor Clinton, as people simply show up at the polls whenever they want and vote in the privacy of the voting booth. Could it be that caucusgoers may have reservations about Obama, but do not voice their concerns for fear of being ridiculed? After all, caucuses are held in public where people are forced to justify their support for their preferred candidate. Obama is the trendy politician who supposedly represents the new Democratic Party. Who wants to go against that? And what about women with children (e.g., Clinton's base) who were unable to attend the caucuses because they couldn't find a babysitter? Did Obama really defeat Clinton by as much as his voting margins suggest?

It is true that Obama has won states that Democrats are not used to winning. He may have a case in swing states like Missouri, Virginia, Iowa, and Wisconsin, but nobody is expecting Utah, Nebraska, Alabama, or Alaska to vote for a Democrat in a general election. It simply won't happen. Obama may be good for getting House and Senate candidates elected in these red states, but he may be overstating his ability to actually win these states for himself.

That's what this race all comes down to. If Democrats are feeling jittery about November, perhaps Clinton would be the better candidate. But if they're feeling bold, maybe Obama would be a better fit for them. Both candidates represent two different Democratic Parties, and it's up to the voters to decide what is more important to them: winning in November, even if it comes at all costs, or ushering in a new era, even if it ultimately results in defeat.

6 comment(s):

Schenck said...

Anthony, nice post. I'm feeling bold.

I really don't see how Clinton is viewed as the "safe choice." Whoever wins the election will win on the backs of Independents. I used to consider myself an Independent until I realized the Maryland primaries were closed (switched just in time). I think there is a much larger chance of a landslide in a McCain/Clinton match-up. I don't see more than 1 in 4 Independents voting for Hillary over McCain = welcome Bush III. I think an Obama/McCain match-up would be a much safer fight for the Dems. Barring some huge gaffe by Obama or an increase in his disability to defend the inexperience and "weak on security" claims (which I doubt considering how he's done against the Clinton machine), he would probably garner half to 75% of the Independent vote, which would nudge him over the top. I just can't see Hillary beating McCain in November.

Brett said...

One additional question might be "Which candidate can help bring other Democrats to power in the process of his electoral run?" After all, there are other important races coming up in November as well, including possibly the best chance in over a decade for the Democrats to deliver a resounding coup to solidify their gains and possibly give them a majority in the Legislature that would be large enough to get past Republican victories.

Obviously, a Democratic legislative agenda would be hurt by a Democratic loss in the race for the Presidency, but McCain (were he elected) isn't George W.Bush. He can compromise, and has done in the past. And I would be willing to accept a weak John McCain presidency, suffering severe concerns over its legitimacy from an extremely close race, in exchange for solid Democratic control over the Legislature. Reluctant, but willing.

Anonymous said...

Lets compare which Obama and HRC won.
I have left out MI, as that is disputed.
NY -Clinton
So- Obama gets 10 states
Clinton gets 5 states
So you tell me who is winning 'blue' states.

Anthony Palmer said...


I think McCain's appeal among independents is overstated right now mainly because of his positions on foreign policy. I think the nation is weary of perceived warmongers, so even if indies may like McCain's bipartisanship on some issues, I don't think they'll flock to him in droves because of his rhetoric on Iraq and Iran. The GOP is not going to rout anyone in this election unless the Democratic nominee makes a HUGE mistake because one party simply doesn't win the White House three elections in a row. George HW Bush managed to do it thanks to the inept Michael Dukakis, Willie Horton, and the tank ad, but that was an aberration. Regarding Hillary, I think that for all her warts, her victories in Texas and Ohio have shown to voters that she does indeed know how to fight and win, even if it's ugly. Many people aren't sure if Obama knows how to do so.



You are definitely right. Did you hear about the special election in IL-14? That's former Speaker Dennis Hastert's district, and a Democrat won there. Incredible. If Obama's at the top of the ballot, he could potentially have long coattails. If Clinton's at the top of the ticket, galvanized Republicans will turn out and vote to "stop her" and nothing else.



You make a valid case for Obama, but one counterargument is that he can't win any "big" states. Smaller states are easier to win because of retail politicking and grassroots organization. When you have to campaign from 30,000 feet, it seems that Clinton may be performing a bit better. I really don't know.

Thanks for the comments!

Thomas said...

Why does the input of the Clinton and Obama campaigns matter in how Florida Democrats decide how to solve their primary problem? It seems to me that both of these campaigns could have motives that would go against the interest of the people in Florida. For example, Barack Obama would be happy to split the Florida delegates half-half even though this isn't necessarily how Floridians would vote.

Anthony Palmer said...


Glenn Beck wrote an excellent piece this week about why Florida and Michigan shouldn't count at all. Why should they? They are the ones who broke the rules, and now they are complaining about being penalized for them. Are they serious?

Obama and Clinton are only talking about this so much because it would be bad politics for them to be on the wrong side of "disenfranchising voters." Clinton is making a good political argument that "their votes should count." One of them will be the nominee, and that nominee will need the Democratic voters in both of these states to put them over the top because John McCain could potentially win both states. If that nominee is seen as not fighting for everyone's vote, the voters may feel that politician is taking their support for granted, or really isn't willing to work for their votes in general.

It's a shame though because neither Obama nor Clinton are responsible for what the Florida and Michigan state parties decided to do. Clinton was wise to leave her name on the ballot in both states even though the other candidates were trying to honor the rules by removing theirs. Just goes to show you that politics ain't beanbag.

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.