You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Hillary Could Win Swing Voters

My colleague Jonathan Chait suggests, gently, that I am off my rocker for even suggesting that Hillary Clinton might have more appeal to swing voters than Barack Obama.  While I’m hesitant to engage Jon over this – my primary purpose in writing that item was to show why Obama’s support among independents was impressive, regardless of what actually happens on caucus night – I just can’t resist the opportunity to rekindle our little quadrennial tradition.  (Loyal readers may remember that Jon and I, who agree on virtually everything in politics, went a few rounds over Howard Dean in 2004.) 

Jon makes a very good point when he notes that a “swing” voter is, by definition, anybody you can pull from the other side.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if Obama attracts upscale Republicans rather than downscale ones, just so long as he’s attracting more total Republican voters than his rivals would.  (It does matter in terms of message and mandate, but that’s another story…)  So, just to be clear, Jon could very well be right and Obama may, in fact, have more crossover appeal than Clinton does.  I’d even go so far as to say that’s the more likely possibility.

But “more likely” is not the same as "certain," which is what Jon -- undoubtedly delirious after Michigan’s thrilling win yesterday -- seems to suggest here: “I don't think there's anythig intrinsic about Hillary Clinton that gives her a natural appeal to blue-collar voters.” 

Au contraire, mon frere.  My recollection of the polls is that white, blue-collar voters are more likely to put a higher premium on experience.  (Our colleague Noam Scheiber wrote something to this effect a while ago and someday, when our electronic archives emerge from their hibernation, you can read it for yourself.)  This factor could prove even more important if foreign policy becomes the paramount issue again.  And that’s not even getting into the question of race, which could also figure prominently particularly once the political focus widens to include the South – and the GOP attack machine gets to work.  (Not that I welcome such attacks, but they’ll come.)

There’s also the question of message on domestic politics. In a widely cited column earlier this year, Ronald Brownstein noted that Obama was shaping up as the “wine track” candidate while Clinton was shaping up as the “beer track” choice.  A lot of this had to do with the type of appeal each candidate was making. Obama’s was idealistic, focusing on the need for a new kind of politics (and, thus, a new kind of candidate capable of transcending the old-fashioned sort of battles); Clinton’s was pragmatic, focusing on the need to deliver bread-and-butter policies (and, thus, a candidate experienced at pushing proposals through Washington in the old-fashioned way).  It hasn’t quite shaped up that way, partly because Obama has done a reasonably good job of connecting his new politics to tangible policy goals, while Clinton has promised to take on the special interests, etc.  But overall, I think, the descriptions are apt.  And while this is all predicated on a discussion of the Democratic electorate, it also makes me think of all those Reagan Democrats that pollster Stanley Greenberg famously identified – and Bill Clinton targeted – when Democrats last won presidential elections, during the 1990s.

For the record, I suspect (despite the Iowa polls) that the candidate with the most crossover appeal both up and down the income scale is John Edwards – a possibility that seems particularly intriguing, given that he’s also running what’s arguably the most progressive candidacy on the issues.  But if you take Edwards out of the question, then, yes, I can still imagine Clinton pulling more Republican voters than Obama.  Of course, as I said at the top, I could also imagine the very opposite happening. 

Not a particularly satisfying answer, I realize, but an honest one. (Now I remember why I hate discussions about electability -- they’re filled with so much uncertainty and, inevitably, distract attention from questions about policy and leadership character, which should remain front-and-center.) 

--Jonathan Cohn