One of several arguments I've seen that argues against nominating Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee is that she is perceived as unelectable. This is the same kind of argument that was used against Howard Dean, except for different reasons: whereas Dean was perceived as too 'liberal' (despite his relatively moderate record as governor) and likely to run his mouth at the wrong time, Clinton is seen as too unlikeable and burdened (however unfairly) with the baggage from the right-wing attacks during Bill Clinton's two terms in the White House.
That being said, recent polling has shown that these concerns - which I always thought were unfounded - are overblown. In fact, one could argue based on the recent numbers that Clinton is now seen as more electable, if not the most 'electable' Democrat.
The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll headlines with the fact that Clinton has a statistically significant 8-point lead over the top Republican in national polling, Rudy Giuliani, 51%-43%. Perhaps the more relevant point, though, is the fact that her unlikeable rating isn't all that bad relative to other Democrats anymore:
Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they definitely would not vote for Clinton in the general election if she were the Democratic nominee, one of the lowest "reject rates" among the leading candidates in either of the two major parties. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) registers the lowest definite opposition, at 39 percent.
Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina often contends that he is the most electable Democrat and one who can campaign successfully in regions where Clinton cannot, but the poll found that, over the past five months, more Americans have turned away from him as a general-election option. In April, 35 percent said they definitely would not vote for him; in the latest poll, 43 percent ruled him out. And in the South, Edwards's home turf, the three leading Democrats have all been ruled out by nearly identical percentages: Edwards by 47 percent, Clinton by 46 percent and Obama by 45 percent.
In essence, all of the top three Democrats (Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards) are ruled out by the same percentage of voters. It also dispels the notion put forth by Karl Rove that Clinton's negatives were too high. It does seem perplexing that after 15 years in the public spotlight, Clinton has been able to drive her negatives down, but she's managed to accomplish just that. More than a year ago, 47% of voters said they would not vote for Clinton as president. Now it's down at 41%, and it's quite possible that she may be able to even go further down. It's also worth noting that in the same time period until now, negatives for the Republican candidates have soared. Last year, Giuliani only had 30% of people who would not vote for him. Now, it's up at 44%, and it goes even higher for other top-tier candidates on the GOP side (John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson). It's hard to discern whether or not the downward trends in Clinton's unlikeability are due to the lack of quality on the GOP side that has made voters reconsider. In addition, the 'ruled-out' number for both Edwards and Obama have risen. Looking at the detailed polling data, Obama has risen slightly in the past 5 months (from 36% to 39%), while Edwards has jumped significantly (35% to 43%). From a national perspective, it's harder to make the case that Clinton will suffer in a substantive fashion from any negative perceptions. Indeed, she's the only candidate who has been going down as time has gone on. And looking at all national polling on the general election, you can see that Clinton has continued to trend up steadily.
State by State
Recently, Markos has been posting the only comprehensive head-to-head polling results (done by Survey USA). You can see the links listed below:
What pops out for me is how well Clinton is doing in these head-to-head matchups. She clearly outperforms Edwards and Obama in the big states (CA, NY, FL), while showing surprising strength in VA. The only states where her performance seems to suffer is in the Pacific Northwest (Obama is tops there) and some of the swing states (Wisconsin, Missouri). In Ohio and New Mexico, she has a decisive advantage over Obama. In the other states, Edwards has an advantage, but these are states where the lead is already fairly big (combined with a lack of name ID for GOP candidates Thompson and Romney). It's a mixed bag - in some swing states, Clinton outperforms, while in others, she clearly is a detriment. Over at Open Left, Chris Bowers compiled a general election map, and it seems to confirm that Clinton performs the strongest on a state-by-state basis of counting electoral votes (she similarly earns the most votes against Romney). While her advantage of Giuliani is less pronounced in this analysis, it is clearly better than how Obama and Edwards fare (both lose a majority of the electoral votes at this time).
What does it all mean? The first thing I should point out is that I am not making an 'inevitability' argument here. The general election is still more than a year away; anything could happen between now and then. In addition, these numbers could change entirely based on voters' perceptions depending on the outcome of the first few states that hold primaries and caucuses. That's the reason why making an argument for a candidate being the most 'electable' or most 'unelectable', particularly at the primary level, is plain-out stupid. While it may be a valid (if not based on a bad premise) claim for Republicans to state that nominating Mitt Romney would be a bad idea, it simply doesn't work on the Democratic side. There's no significant difference in the percentage of voters who would not consider the 'Big Three', and when looking at the matchups, Clinton - perhaps surprisingly - fares the best.
This doesn't mean that I still have heavy reservations about Clinton. In particular (not withstanding Joe Biden's push poll), I do worry about Clinton's effect on Democratic candidates down-ticket. However, this is only something is likely to be observed empirically at this point in time. As I've previously chronicled, I also worry about her cautious policy stances, her hawkish tone on foreign policy, and that a second Clinton administration will be the death of the current grassroots resurgence within the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, it's time that Clinton detractors stop using the 'electability' argument against her. It's not valid. That doesn't mean Clinton supporters, as they seem wont to do, use poll numbers as the be-all, end-all. But it's not a legitimate point to argue as to who is the best candidate to be our nominee.