Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Assessing Strength of Contenders in Swing States


Reflecting on her victory in the Pennsylvania primary, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday neatly summed up the chief political rationale of her enduring candidacy.

“I won the states that we have to win — Ohio, now Pennsylvania,” Mrs. Clinton said on CNN about her successes over Senator Barack Obama, in one of her six appearances on morning news shows. “It’s very hard to imagine a Democrat getting to the White House without winning those states.”

Mrs. Clinton says her popularity among blue-collar workers, women and Hispanics makes her the candidate to beat Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in the swing states that decide presidential races. Along with Ohio and Pennsylvania, she also cites her success in Michigan and Florida — even though the Democratic Party disqualified those contests, and Mr. Obama was not on the Michigan ballot — to claim an edge in crucial battlegrounds.

Yet for all of her primary night celebrations in the populous states, exit polling and independent political analysts offer evidence that Mr. Obama could do just as well as Mrs. Clinton among blocs of voters with whom he now runs behind. Obama advisers say he also appears well-positioned to win swing states and believe he would have a strong shot at winning traditional Republican states like Virginia.

According to surveys of Pennsylvania voters leaving the polls on Tuesday, Mr. Obama would draw majorities of support from lower-income voters and less-educated ones — just as Mrs. Clinton would against Mr. McCain, even though those voters have favored her over Mr. Obama in the primaries.

And national polls suggest Mr. Obama would also do slightly better among groups that have gravitated to Republican in the past, like men, the more affluent and independents, while she would do slightly better among women.

Mr. Obama may lead in the national popular vote and among delegates needed to win the nomination, but his inability to “close the deal” with voters — a phrase Mrs. Clinton skewered him with Tuesday — has been widely discussed in light of the Pennsylvania results. Mr. Obama found himself on the defensive over the issue Wednesday, and he countered that the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania had worked their political networks on behalf of Mrs. Clinton.

“Among all these groups that people have been focused on — blue-collar workers, white working-class folks — we did better in Pennsylvania than we did in Ohio, so we’re continually making progress,” Mr. Obama told reporters in Indiana, which holds its primary on May 6. “If you look at these states that I’m supposed to win, if you look at the polling, I actually do if not as well then better than Senator Clinton relative to Senator McCain.”

In recent weeks, Clinton advisers have been challenging Mr. Obama’s electability in a general election, and her victories in Ohio and Pennsylvania are perhaps her best evidence yet to argue that she is better suited to build a coalition across income, education and racial lines in closely contested states.

But the Pennsylvania exit polls, conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for five television networks and The Associated Press, underscore a point that political analysts made on Wednesday: that state primary results do not necessarily translate into general election victories.

“I think it differs state to state, and I think either Democrat will have a good chance of appealing to many Democrats who didn’t vote for them the first time,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster not affiliated with either campaign. “Take Michigan. It has a Democratic governor, two Democratic senators, and many Democratic congressmen, so it’s probably going to be a pretty good state for the Democrats in a recession year.”

Mr. Hart, as well as Obama advisers, also say that Mr. Obama appears better poised than Mrs. Clinton to pick up states that Democrats struggle to carry, or rarely do, in a general election, like Colorado, Iowa, Missouri and Virginia, all of which he carried in the primaries. Obama advisers say their polling indicates he is more popular with independents, and far less divisive than Mrs. Clinton, in those states.

“Hillary goes deeper and stronger in the Democratic base than Obama, but her challenge is that she doesn’t go as wide,” Mr. Hart said. “Obama goes much further reaching into the independent and Republican vote, and has a greater chance of creating a new electoral map for the Democrats.”

Indeed, if Mr. Obama does become the first African-American nominee of a major party, the electoral landscape of the South could be transformed with the likelihood of strong turnout of black voters in Republican-leaning states like Georgia and Louisiana, which Mr. Obama carried this winter. (Mrs. Clinton has also argued that, given the Clinton roots, she could put at least Arkansas in play in the fall.)

Obama advisers have also argued that swing states like Ohio are winnable this fall because they have been increasingly leaning Democratic and have been struggling economically under President Bush. Indeed, some Obama allies hope he will pick Ohio’s popular governor, Ted Strickland, as his running mate if he wins the nomination, both to help carry Ohio and to unify the party (Mr. Strickland is supporting Mrs. Clinton).

And the record-setting voter registrations among both Democrats and independents across the nation also suggest that each candidate is capable of stirring excitement among voters in the fall and would be positioned to defend their bases of support against Mr. McCain, who is a popular figure among many independents and some Democrats.

Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a strong backer of Mr. Obama, said she believed that the thousands of new voters being drawn into the primaries would coalesce around the Democratic nominee once the candidate and the party begin to define Mr. McCain better on issues like the war.

“I think that will turn the tide for the people who are going in that direction,” Ms. DeLauro said of Democrats who have said they could not vote for Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton.

But Clinton supporters come back to the fact that Mr. Obama has had months of primaries — as well as a sharp fund-raising advantage — with which to beat Mrs. Clinton in more swing voter groups, and yet has failed. Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a supporter of Mrs. Clinton, said he saw her economic message as resonating more strongly with working-class voters than Mr. Obama’s.

“She is connecting better with some of these blue-collar Democrats, the base of the party,” Mr. McGovern said.

Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

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