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Doing the Math

The races look like Hillary's and Rudy's to lose. But numbers can deceive.

Polls can mislead, but at the risk of making a fool of myself, I will try to draw some conclusions from the current ones: Hillary Clinton is going to get the Democratic nomination unless she makes some very big mistakes between now and the first caucuses and primaries; and the Republican race looks increasingly like a two-man contest between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, with Fred Thompson and John McCain as also-runs and Mike Huckabee as a spoiler.

Democrats: Some supporters of John Edwards or Barack Obama point out that the frontrunner in October doesn’t always win the Democratic nomination. Bill Bradley, after all, was leading Al Gore in some polls in October 1999 and either Wesley Clark or Howard Dean was ahead in October 2003. So, why make so much out of Hillary Clinton’s current advantage in state and national polls?

There are two reasons: First, the size of her advantage. When CBS News reported in December 2003 that “Dean pulls away in Dem race,” he was ahead of his nearest competitors by 13 percentage points, and still had only 23 percent of the total. Bradley, of course, was barely ahead of Gore four years before. By contrast, Clinton’s margin is double that of her nearest competitor. In some polls, she is actually getting more than 50 percent. CNN’s latest is 51 percent for Clinton, 21 percent for Obama, and 15 percent for Edwards. She is ahead in all the state polls, including Iowa.

Secondly, her support appears to be relatively solid. In the current CBS poll, where she leads Obama 51 to 23 percent, 64 percent of her supporters say they strongly favor her candidacy, 26 percent say they like her with reservations, and only ten percent say they are supporting her because they dislike other candidates. In the Marist polls of New Hampshire voters, where she leads Obama 41 to 20 percent among likely voters, only 14 percent of these voters say they might change their mind. By contrast, 32 percent of John Edward’s voters say might change their mind.

Clinton has maintained a significant edge over her rivals among women voters and non-college educated working class voters, but in the last four months, she has gained a growing advantage among younger voters, college-educated women (as Ron Brownstein notes in an interesting column) and upper-income voters making $60,000 or more. These voters had been part of Obama’s electoral base; now they have shifted to Clinton and say that they'll vote for her when the primaries and caucuses come.

Obama has newly vowed to draw sharp distinctions between his positions and Clinton’s. That might work if Clinton were running a centrist campaign as Joe Lieberman did in 2004 or Paul Tsongas in 1992, but except for her vote on the Lieberman-Kyl amendment calling on the United States to “contain” Iran, she has protected her left flank. Indeed, in criticizing Clinton, Obama has initially positioned himself to her right, criticizing her for being insufficiently candid in recognizing the “problem” facing social security. That’s a stance that will probably cost him, since senior citizens make up a sizeable chunk of caucus and primary voters.

If Obama has a chance, he will have to win Iowa. He might take heart from a recent University of Iowa poll which shows Obama a close second to Clinton, but the poll’s methodology is suspect. A result more in line with other polls is that of the American Research Group, which shows Clinton ahead of Obama by 32 to 22 percent, with Edwards continuing to fall out of contention.

Republicans: The Republican field is still very closely bunched and could remain so even after the February 5 super primaries. If anything has changed, it is the failure of Fred Thompson’s candidacy to take off. In the American Research Group poll, Thompson fell from 23 to 16 percent in the last month. But even more revealing is what has happened to Thompson in South Carolina, a state that he needs to win to establish himself as the Southern candidate. In July, before he had announced for presidency, he was getting 27 percent; now he is down to 10 percent, far behind Romney at 29 percent and Giuliani at 23 percent.

If Thompson fails to win South Carolina, that will create a two-man race between Giuliani and Romney. McCain has gained ground in New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the primary, but he lacks the money and the Republican base to win. Huckabee is likely to flicker and go out after Iowa. His is a protest candidacy for religious conservatives who are currently uncomfortable with the frontrunners. Giuliani’s strength continues to be in the large states that vote after Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, particularly Florida, California, and New York. Giuliani leads Romney by 25 to 13 percent in California. He leads Thompson by 30 to 14 percent in Florida.

Romney, on the other hand, continues to run strongly in the first three states, including South Carolina. In the American Research Group polls, Romney leads Huckabee by 27 to 19 percent in Iowa, he leads Giuliani by 30 to 23 percent in New Hampshire, and leads Giuliani by 29 to 23 percent in South Carolina. If Romney can win these states and Michigan, which also votes early, he could get a boost that would allow him to defeat Giuliani in the South and to compete with him in the big states in the West, Middle West and Northeast.

The question about Romney is how much his current popularity depends on an extensive ad campaigns that he has been running. Will his popularity hold up once the other candidates begin competing on the airwaves? According to polls, Romney’s support is far from solid. In the Marist poll in New Hampshire of likely voters, only 37 percent of Romney’s supporters back him “strongly.” By comparison, 48 percent of Giuliani’s supporters, and 56 percent of McCain’s are strong backers.

The question about Giuliani is what will happen if his rivals begin running negative ads against him. If Giuliani has to start defending himself against charges that he hired shady incompetents; or if has to explain away his libertine lifestyle, he could be in trouble.

Presidential matchup: Polls are beginning to pit Hillary Clinton against Giuliani. These polls reveal almost nothing at this point. The one thing that does appear, and is likely to persist, is an enormous gender gap. In the Survey USA poll in Wisconsin, men favored Giuliani by 50 to 38 percent, while women favored Clinton by 58 to 33 percent. In Ohio, men favored Giuliani by 52 to 40 percent; and women Clinton by 53 to 38 percent. Whether Giuliani or Clinton come out ahead in current state polls depends on which way the gender gap tilts.

Two other key variables are “moderate” and “evangelical” voters. Giuliani seems to need about 40 percent of moderates and 60 percent of evangelicals to edge out Clinton in swing states. In Virginia, for instance, which will be a swing state in 2008, Clinton has 47 and Giuliani 46 percent--a virtual dead heat. In that state, Giuliani gets 41 percent of moderates and 60 percent of evangelicals. In Wisconsin, where Clinton is ahead by 48 to 41 percent, Giuliani gets only 33 percent of moderates and 51 percent of evangelicals. What’s interesting is that Giuliani’s success among one of these constituencies may come at the expense of the other, whereas Clinton, by moving to the center after the primaries, may be able to satisfy a significant minority of evangelicals while winning over moderates.

Clinton’s problem in a general election is likely to be the “one of us” requirement. Voters generally like candidates that seem like “one of us.” Bill Clinton and George W. Bush met this requirement. Al Gore and John Kerry did not. It’s not captured in any particular poll questions, but is related to how voters respond to the question of whether a candidate “understands the average person” or is “likeable.” Some polls already reveal that Clinton will have problems on this score. In the Los Angeles Times poll, being “not likeable/unfriendly/cold” appears as the second greatest reason for voters having an “unfavorable impression” of her. And she may have difficulty turning this around, because as a woman candidate, she also has to convince voters that she is “tough” enough to stand up to the nation’s adversaries.

All these current polls suggest that Giuliani would be the strongest Republican opponent for Clinton. Romney and Thompson run well behind Giuliani in matchups with Clinton. But in Romney’s case, that may be because he is less well known than Giuliani and has focused his campaign on the initial three states. If Romney were to win the Republican nomination--and win it early rather than late--he could prove to be a formidable opponent to the Democrats, as he was when he ran for governor in Democratic Massachusetts. It’s too early to tell.