Can Sen. Clinton Be Elected to the White House in 2008?

Posted January 31, 2007 at 4:53pm

If activists, political insiders and journalists are asking whether former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani can win the Republican nomination for president, they are equally consumed with the question of whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) can win the White House. [IMGCAP(1)]

Let’s skip the suspense and cut right to the answer: Yes.

While some of my colleagues doubt that the New York Senator can overcome her high negative ratings and attract a majority of the electorate in her bid for the White House, I’ve come to the conclusion that she can, as long as she runs the high-quality campaign I think she can.

Let me be very clear: I am not predicting that Clinton will win in 2008. I’m not even predicting that she will be the Democratic nominee. What I am saying is that I don’t agree with those who have concluded that her negatives are so great that she cannot beat a strong Republican nominee next year.

Every White House hopeful in history — and I am not exaggerating when I say “every” — has begun the race with a number of question marks. For some, the question was experience. For others, ideology. For still others, it was a question of style or substance or ability to connect with real people.

Clinton is not without such questions. Is she “warm” enough to make voters feel comfortable voting for her? Is a majority of the electorate ready to elect a woman? How will she deal with the double-edged sword of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who simultaneously is an asset and a liability in her White House bid? Did she alienate so many people as first lady that a majority of voters in key states simply will not cast their votes for her?

There is no debate about this: The Senator’s campaign will need to address these questions — and others, including the aforementioned electability question — and deal with them successfully if she is going to have a chance of winning the White House. There’s no doubt that she has political baggage.

But Sen. Clinton isn’t the only hopeful with weaknesses to strengthen and questions to answer. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will have to answer questions about his age and health, as well as his Iraq position and his wooing of conservatives. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) will have to deal with his multiple positions on abortion and, yes, his religion. And Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will have to deal with his inexperience, just as former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) will have to address his lack of foreign policy experience.

Polling released over the past few weeks doesn’t support the argument that Clinton is unelectable.

A Jan. 18-21 CBS News poll of adults showed that Clinton’s favorable and unfavorable ratings are identical at 36 percent. A Jan. 16-19 ABC News/Washington Post survey of adults found that her personal ratings were 54 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable. While the Senator’s negatives are high, they certainly don’t appear high enough to prevent her from wining a presidential election.

A Jan. 5-7 Gallup/USA Today poll of adults found that only 34 percent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic said they “definitely” would support Clinton for president, while 52 percent said they would “consider” supporting her, and 14 percent said they “definitely” would not support her.

If Clinton had to start a general election having to write off one out of every seven Democrats, she would be in a serious general election hole. But I’m very skeptical about people knowing how they’ll feel and how they’ll behave a year or two from now. And I expect that some of those who insist they will never vote for her will in fact vote for Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee.

In the meantime, the CBS survey offered some very good news for Clinton. More than two out of three respondents — and 84 percent of Democrats — said Clinton “has strong leadership qualities,” and 59 percent said she has “the right kind of experience to be a good president.” Finally, a majority of those questioned, 53 percent, said Clinton could win the presidential election if nominated by her party.

When ABC News/Washington Post pollsters asked respondents about hypothetical White House matchups, Clinton beat McCain, 50 percent to 45 percent, and she beat Giuliani, 49 percent to 47 percent. While these ballot tests don’t guarantee that Clinton would win those races, they do strongly suggest that it’s a mistake to dismiss her as unelectable.

Finally, assertions that Clinton’s polarizing reputation and name make her unelectable ignore history. I remember some New York political observers questioning the then-first lady’s electability in New York when she announced for the Senate. But she went to the most Republican part of the state — upstate — and won over her skeptics. There is no reason to believe that she couldn’t do that in Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico and the handful of other competitive states that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) lost in 2004. Remember, it’s irrelevant that Clinton can’t carry Mississippi or Utah. She won’t need them.

Moreover, elections involve choices, and often those choices involve the lesser of two evils. No matter what personal baggage she carries, the Senator surely would have targets of opportunity in 2008, including the GOP nominee, the outgoing president and the now-damaged Republican Party brand. Her job would be to make the election about Bush and to position herself as a force for change, competence and accomplishment.

Then-Vice President Al Gore and Kerry, Democratic presidential nominees with considerable weaknesses, narrowly lost presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, respectively. Gore even carried the popular vote. Whatever her liabilities, it’s hard to see Clinton losing large numbers of voters who were willing to pull the lever for Gore and Kerry. She would lose some, but not many. In my book, that’s reason enough for believing that she would have a reasonable chance of wining the White House in 2008.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.