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Exit Polls Reveal Obama's Weaknesses

Barack Obama has rested his campaign partly on the claim that he is the more electable of the Democratic presidential candidates, but the result of the March 4 primaries, as outlined in the initial exit polls, show that he could have as much trouble as Hillary Clinton in the fall.

If you look at the exit polls for Ohio, and to some extent, Texas and Rhode Island, they show the same pattern that occurred in the February 5 contests, but that was submerged in Obama's intervening victories. Hillary Clinton does better or much better than him among women, whites (particularly those who make less than $50,000 a year), Latinos, and older voters. He does better than her among the young, among African Americans, and among upscale voters. 

The question for the fall is whether there are Clinton voters who won't vote for Obama and Obama voters who won't vote for Clinton. The exit polls don't really answer this question. The closest they get is to ask respondents whether they would be "satisfied" or "dissatisfied" if Clinton or Obama were the eventual nominee. The results tonight do not look good for Obama. In Wisconsin, for instance, only 17 percent of Democratic primary voters said they would be dissatisfied if Obama were the nominee. In Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas, 30 percent or more of voters said they would be "dissatisfied" if he were the nominee. That means that a sizable percentage of voters who backed Hillary Clinton may not back Obama in the fall. But Clinton's percentages were not that much better. They were in the high twenties.

Obama has to worry about the Reagan or Bush Democrats, white working class voters who used to be Democrats, but often back Republican presidential candidates. Bill Clinton won many of these voters back; but Al Gore lost them in 2000 and John Kerry lost them in 2004. Many of these voters are not participating in the Democratic or Republicans primaries--and they'll make the difference in November in states like Ohio and Missouri. But of the voters that are participating, Clinton did much better among them, winning over 60 percent of them in Ohio.

Could Obama win these voters in the fall? There is no precise way to tell from the polls, but one rough measure is to look at how racial factors affect voters. Many white working class voters abandoned the Democrats in the '80s because of the complex of issues that surround race--including crime, education, and welfare. Obama could have a problem among these voters because he is an African American.

The exit polls ask voters whether the "race of the candidates" was "important" in deciding their vote. If one looks at the percentage of Clinton (and earlier Edwards) voters who said it was "important," that is a fair estimate of the overall percentage of primary voters who were not inclined to vote for Obama because he was black. In Texas and California, this number is complicated by presence of Latino voters, some of whom might also be less inclined to vote for a black candidate.

In some February 5 states, the overall percentage of white (or Latino) primary voters who voted for white candidates partly because of race was pretty high. It was 9.5 percent, for instance, in New Jersey. In the general election, that percentage is likely to double; and some of these additional voters will be white working class or Latino voters that a Democratic candidate needs to win. In Wisconsin, the number was very low--only 6 percent. But in Ohio, a crucial swing state, it was 11.4 percent. That's a real danger sign for Obama in a state where elections can be decided by one or two percentage points.

In past elections, Clinton has done poorly among white men--a group that might be less inclined to vote for her because of her gender--but in Ohio, she got a respectable 55 percent of this vote, although that might be a reflection of these voters' greater discomfort with Obama. Clinton has also done less well among moderate and independent voters. Obama won independents in Ohio by 54 to 46 percent--nothing like his two-to-one margins in other states.

But Clinton bested Obama among moderate voters by 53 to 46 percent in Ohio, while Obama edged her among liberal voters by 50 to 49 percent. The same pattern occurred in Rhode Island, where Clinton won moderates by 55 to 44 percent and lost liberal voters to Obama by 51 to 48 percent. That's probably not a good sign for Obama, whose strength lay in his appeal to the political center. All in all, the exit polls show that in these elections--in contrast to those in Maryland, Virginia, or Wisconsin--Obama's weakness as a potential candidate in November may be beginning to surface. In so far as Clinton's problems are already apparent, that doesn't bode well for the Democrats, particularly as the nominating struggle continues for another month.

--John B. Judis