The electability game is on for 2008. Too bad the presidential candidates aren't doing a better job of playing it.
Last week, the Rudy Giuliani campaign argued in a fundraising appeal that "in important swing states ... Rudy is the only Republican candidate who can compete with the Democrats." The letter specifically mentioned Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Florida; Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's national campaign manager, followed up by adding Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, California and Illinois to the list.
Meanwhile, in response to a question from a New Hampshire voter about his viability in a general election, Barack Obama "guaranteed" that if he's the Democratic nominee, black turnout "goes up 30 percent around the country, minimum," turning Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina into Democratic states.
But both Giuliani and Obama are looking for new votes in the wrong places.
Take Rudy first. In staking a "9/11 changed everything" claim on voters who have either a geographic or cultural proximity to Ground Zero, he faces two daunting problems. First, increasing social liberalism and geographic mobility have put the bluest states far out of the GOP's reach. In the most recent polls conducted by Survey USA, Hillary Clinton is crushing Giuliani by 22 points in New York and 17 points in California. Even in New Jersey, there's really no hope for Rudy. Jersey Democrats have nominated a parade of dispiriting candidates for statewide office in recent years: the closeted Jim McGreevey; the corrupt Bob Torricelli, replaced by the 147-year-old Frank Lautenberg; the ruthless gazillionaire Jon Corzine; the machine hack Robert Menendez. They all won going away. New Jersey, like Illinois, just isn't competitive.
Second, the fact is that the more people see of Rudy, the less they like him. Giuliani's entire campaign is based on scaring the hell out of people about what he calls "the Terrorists' War on Us" (Rudy's capitals). But a politics based on the psychology of fear, which admittedly carried the Republicans through 2002 and 2004, wears thin after a while. And it's undermined by unhappiness with the war in Iraq.
As a result, Giuliani's appeal to voters is exactly the opposite of what his campaign would like you to believe: the further you move away from Ground Zero, the better he does. Did I mention he's losing to Hillary Clinton by 22 points in New York? Against her, Rudy is likely to lose Connecticut, lose Pennsylvania narrowly and run well in Florida and Missouri--just like George W. Bush did last time around. His best chance for picking up a Democratic state is probably Wisconsin, which has a sizable number of ethnic Catholics, which John Kerry carried by less than 0.4 percentage points, and where Rudy might not overexpose himself by Election Day. Giuliani's running better than Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson in current polls. But he's not exactly rewriting the electoral map.
Obama's math is even easier to refute. Georgia (29 percent), Misssisippi (37 percent) and South Carolina (30 percent) all have significant black populations. But, not coincidentally, they also have extremely polarized voting. 85 percent of whites in Mississippi voted for George W. Bush in 2004, 78 percent in South Carolina, and 76 percent in Georgia, giving Bush huge overall margins of 17 to 20 percentage points. Even if an Obama candidacy caused a 30 percent surge in black voters, even if all blacks voted Democratic, and even if there were no corresponding increase among whites, all three states would stay Republican.
Neither Obama, who would like to argue that he could transform politics in the old Confederacy, nor Giuliani, who has been selling out to the likes of Ralph Reed since the 2002 midterms, should care so much about his chances in the Deep South. The pro-Christian/pro-war/anti-tax right is at a decades-low ebb in its national appeal. In its wake, two large blocs of voters are shaking loose of their political affiliations and are up for grabs--if politicians are willing to notice.
One is the group of voters who gravitated to John McCain in 2000. Call them the non-Dixiecrat Republicans: largely Western, reformist, libertarian in their suspicion of big government but also populist in their suspicion of big business. These voters consider themselves conservatives but are temperamentally as well as ideologically separate from the party's Christianist wing, and they broke Democratic in 2006. Candidates really looking to rewrite the electoral map would realize the Mountain West and Southwest are up for grabs: Kerry came within five points of winning Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. But so far, the leading presidential candidates haven't paid much attention to the region, with the retrograde exceptions of John Edwards' courting of Las Vegas unions and Mitt Romney's relentless attacks on illegal immigrants.
There's another group of drifting voters: Republicans across the Midwest and prairie states who live in small towns, work in small businesses, despise the corruption and venality of Washington and have come to the end of their patience with the Iraq war. They too consider themselves conservatives, but have largely turned on the Bush Administration. And what's fairly amazing is that given a chance, Barack Obama might be their man.
Earlier this summer, Obama finished third, behind Romney and Giuliani, in a University of Iowa poll of Republican voters in that first caucus state. In other surveys, Obama has scored better among Republicans than Democrats when respondents are asked to name the Democratic candidate with the best chance to win the general election. "Obama would get more [from Republicans] than everybody else combined," pollster Frank Luntz says about surveys he has conducted. "Hillary and Edwards have no crossover voters."
Of course, that won't do him much good in the Democratic primaries. In a classic case of "be careful what you wish for," Obama's followers like to compare their candidate to Robert Kennedy. But the truth about RFK's 1968 campaign is that had he lived, he would have had a harder time securing the Democratic nomination from Hubert Humphrey, the candidate of the party regulars, than winning the general election against Richard Nixon. "My only chance is to chase Hubert's ass all over the country," Kennedy said the night he won the California primary, just before he was shot. "Maybe he'll fold."
The way things are going, Obama--for different reasons than he articulated last week--is the one and only candidate who could rearrange the electoral jigsaw puzzle. But he'll have to get by Hillary Clinton first. And she ain't folding.
By Peter Keating