Those in the press always prefer presidential races to be close contests, and this year they’ve seemingly lucked out again. The latest story line has Hillary Clinton on the defensive, as a surging Barack Obama mounts a successful challenge against the New York senator, who was widely presumed to have the nomination wrapped up before the process even started.
Yes, it is true that Obama is doing well in the early states (though, as of this writing, he doesn’t have a clear lead in any of them). But according to the detailed nationwide polls, Clinton is still thoroughly trouncing Obama. So much so, in fact, that one unmistakable thing is now clear: if Obama does overtake Clinton to win the nomination, it will rank among the biggest upsets in modern political history — on par with George McGovern’s toppling of front-runner Edmund Muskie in 1972.
A New York Times/CBS nationwide December poll has Clinton ahead of Obama 44 to 27 percent. A similar ABC/Washington Post poll has her leading at 52 to 23 percent. Those numbers can be eroded, certainly, but overturning them won’t be easy, by a long shot, no matter what happens in the early primaries.
And the “internals” (pinpointed polling data) reflected in the surveys bolster evidence of Clinton’s lead even more. Who do Democratic voters think is the strongest leader? The Post poll has Clinton leading Obama 61 to 19 percent. Which leader is the most trustworthy (a trait that is supposedly Clinton’s Achilles’ heel)? The Post poll has her ahead of Obama here, as well — 35 to 27 percent. Who is the most electable? Clinton crushes Obama on that one again, 59 to 16 percent. Is Obama experienced enough to be president? The Times poll finds that a 52-to-41-percent majority, even of Democrats, thinks Obama needs more time to grow.
So despite what you read about the candidates’ reversals of fortune, the truth according to current polls is pretty clear: nationally, most Democrats are quite happy with Clinton.
Of course, it’s a different story in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where the race now appears to be a dead heat. One could argue that when voters pay attention — as they have in states where voting is imminent — Clinton’s lead collapses. Perhaps. But one problem with that argument is that the rest of the nation will never follow the race as closely as have the voters in those first three states. After January, the campaign will become a whirlwind, and even if he wins some early states, Obama will still have to do an awful lot to reverse his weak national poll numbers.
Second, Clinton may be polling poorly in the early contests due to extraneous factors unique to those states. South Carolina has one of the largest percentages of black voters (about 50 percent) — a natural Obama constituency. In New Hampshire, independents can vote in the Democratic primary — and Hillary doesn’t do as well with these voters as she does with members of her own party. (In the latest Concord Monitor poll, Clinton leads Obama 36 percent to 27 percent among Democrats, but trails 40 percent to 23 percent among independents.)