People are worried that Hillary will hurt other Democrats’ chances in ’08. Is it a legitimate fear?

Even with Barack Obama looking more and more competitive in the fast-approaching Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to win the 2008 Democratic nomination. But that hasn’t quieted the grumbling--hell, downright speechifying--from some Democrats that if she were to become the nominee, Clinton would drag down Democratic chances in congressional and local elections in ways that neither of her main opponents (Obama and Senator John Edwards) ever could. “If Hillary comes to the state of Missouri, we can write it off,” warned Missouri House Minority Whip Connie Johnson, an Edwards supporter, last October. “I’m not sure it would be fatal in Indiana, but she would be a drag,” Democratic state Rep. Dave Crooks of nearby Indiana told the AP in August.

While there are plenty of other reasons not to vote for her, concerns about Clinton’s down-ballot drag are overwrought. Though she could have a marginal effect on a few races here and there, our electoral system has become so shock-absorbent that presidential candidates barely have a down-ballet effect anymore. In 2004 George W. Bush posted what by today’s lights was a solid win, and yet what coattails did he have? The Republicans made no net gain among governors; they added four U.S. senators (their biggest achievement) and a mere four U.S. house seats; and they lost about five dozen state legislative seats overall and net control of four state legislative chambers. Not since Gary Coleman last donned a tuxedo have we seen coattails this short.

Partly, this is a consequence of states holding their elections in non-presidential cycles. Only 11 states elect their governors in presidential years, and in many states, some or all seats in either state legislative chamber are off the ballot. Meanwhile, the increasingly sophisticated gerrymandering of both national and state legislative districts further limits the ability of presidential candidacies to ramify down-ballot. Finally, because straight party-line voting is on the rise, the performance and approval of presidential candidates is less likely to cause partisan defections in other races. So, whether Hillary Clinton is a greater asset or liability than Edwards or Obama is secondary to the fact that neither she nor they are likely to have much effect on their fellow Democratic office-seekers.

Those who warn about “Clinton drag” point to her poll numbers. As Karl Rove noted in his inaugural online column for Newsweek, “For a front-runner in an open race for the presidency, she has the highest negatives in history.” But a closer look shows that, on many measures, she fares no worse and often a bit better than Obama and Edwards. Take the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, which shows that her national favorability rating of 52 percent is statistically identical to Obama’s 53 percent and John Edwards’ 50. Democrats rate her higher in terms of “leadership” ability (88 percent; Obama, 68 percent; Edwards, 64 percent), though Republicans rate her lower (22 percent, 40 percent and 33 percent, respectively). The case against Clinton is usually pegged to her favorable/unfavorable splits. Typical of this trend is the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, which shows Clinton with a +3 favorable/unfavorable margin (49 percent to 46 percent), compared to Obama at +16 (50 percent to 34 percent) and Edwards at +11 (46 percent to 35 percent).

In short, while Americans view Clinton about as favorably as they do her two chief rivals, Democrats think she is a better leader, Republicans think she’d make a worse leader, and a greater share of voters who do not approve of her actually disapprove of her--which sounds like a redundancy, but is not when you realize that many voters have neither a favorable nor unfavorable view of Obama or Edwards. If either of them wins the nomination, however, don’t doubt for a second that the Republican machine can’t or won’t ratchet up their negatives later.

Still, is there something unique about Clinton that could put other 2008 Democratic candidates at risk? The strongest claim to that is she’s an uncommonly unifying figure--for Republicans and the right. So while the intensity of Clinton hatred may not multiply a voter’s vote, it could motivate citizens to engage in other ways, such as donating to Republican candidates, walking precincts, or persuading their friends and co-workers to vote against Clinton and other Democrats. Such activities have the potential to alter the composition of the electorate from the one currently being polled--with potentially damaging ramifications for Democratic candidates in close races.

But at the heart of the Clinton drag thesis is the notion, typified by the comments from the Missouri and Indiana Democrats above, that she will disproportionately hurt Democrats running in red states or red areas of blue states. This is in sharp contrast to Obama, who it seems like everyday benefits from a story about his “red state appeal,” his ability to draw in people who typically wouldn’t vote Democratic. Let’s presume for a moment that Clinton would be a drag. What down-ballot races would she likely affect?

Of the 11 gubernatorial races, three Democrats (Montana’s Brian Schweitzer, New Hampshire’s John Lynch, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin) and three Republicans (North Dakota’s John Hoeven, Utah’s Jon Huntsman, Vermont’s Jim Douglas) are safe incumbents likely to be re-elected no matter what. Contests that could be affected include the re-election bids of Washington Democrat Christine Gregoire, Republicans Matt Blunt of Missouri and Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and the race to replace term-limited Democrat Mike Easley in North Carolina. Blunt’s head-to-head numbers against expected Democratic nominee Jay Nixon are probably too lousy to matter, but Washington and Indiana are swing states that might be influenced by the presidential campaigns. So, at worst, Clinton could make it slightly tougher for Democrats to re-elect Gregoire, unseat Daniels, and replace Easley. On that latter count, the nomination of Tar Heel native Edwards might be more helpful.

Turning to the Senate, Democrats Jeanne Shaheen and Mark Warner look solid in New Hampshire and Virginia. The races most likely to be affected by presidential politics included two with endangered Republican incumbents (Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Gordon Smith in Oregon), and two where Republican retirements in Colorado and New Mexico have provided Democrats with great pickup opportunities. In the two southwestern open-seat races, Edwards and Obama might be less helpful down-ballot than Clinton, who enjoys strong support among Hispanics. In the other two, Clinton could cause problems for Democrats in culturally conservative northern Minnesota and eastern Oregon, but probably no more so than Obama--the perceived difference between the two is likely quite small among white rural voters. Again, only Edwards might have some positive impact here. As for U.S. House races, though too numerous to discuss in detail, the wave of Republican retirements--10 announced so far in Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and New Mexico alone--will turn many of the key races into referenda on the quality of the parties’ House, not presidential, nominees.

There is one other key factor to consider: Hillary’s support among women--the one demographic that is disbursed evenly across almost every precinct, county, and state in the nation--could even make her a down-ballot asset in 2008, especially if she can turn out under-mobilized, unmarried female voters. But the fact is that neither she nor her main rivals will provide a significant drag or lift for Democratic office-seekers. Pantsuits don’t have coattails anyway, so perhaps it is appropriate that a woman could become the first major-party presidential nominee at a time when presidential candidates don’t pull many fellow partisans into office with them.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.

By Thomas F. Schaller