Pundits Say Clinton or Obama, But Edwards Is Best Bet to Beat GOP

Two polls released last week say much about that exquisite mixture of issue-free fluff and mind-numbing stupidity we call the presidential primaries and, if you're into dramatic statements, about our democracy itself.

According to the New York Times/CBS News poll taken Dec. 5-9 (PDF), 63 percent of likely voters believe Hillary Clinton "has the best chance of winning in November" -- the dreaded "electability" question that haunts candidates like Dennis Kucinich. Following Clinton, 14 percent thought Barack Obama was the best equipped to take on the GOP, and just one in ten gave the nod to John Edwards. Of the rest of the field, only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson got even a single percentage point.

Despite having the highest "unfavorable" numbers of all the top candidates in both parties, Americans think Clinton is the most electable. Go figure.

But according to the CNN poll (PDF) taken Dec. 6-9, a starkly different picture emerges when voters are asked about head-to-head match-ups in November; when the leading Dems are pitted against the top Republicans, it's John Edwards -- not Clinton and not Obama -- who simply wipes the floor with the whole GOP field. "Edwards is the only Democrat who beats all four Republicans," said Keating Holland, CNN's polling director, "and McCain is the only Republican who beats any of the three Democrats."

Compare how Edwards and Clinton do in head-to-head match-ups:

Edwards 54% (+10)
McCain 44%

Clinton 48% (-2)
McCain 50%

Edwards 53%(+9)
Giuliani 44%

Clinton 51%(+6)
Giuliani 45%

Edwards 59%(+22)
Romney 37%

Clinton 54%(+11)
Romney 43%

Edwards 60%(+25)
Huckabee 35%

Clinton 54%(+10)
Huckabee 44%

Like visuals? The Atlantic's Matt Yglesias put the results in graphic form:

Click for larger version
(click for larger version)

These results are the diametric opposite of the received wisdom: Clinton, with an average margin of 6.25 points is the least likely to beat the eventual GOP nominee, while Obama's spread is 8.75 points and John Edwards beats the GOP field by an average margin of victory of 16 points. It's worth noting that both the LA Times/ Bloomberg and Gallup polls aren't even including Edwards in their head-to-head match-ups.

The obvious caveats obtain: These data give only a snapshot of opinion at a given point in time; the two polls used different samples, etc. But the disconnect begs the question: How could the conventional wisdom be so far off the mark?

The answer is not, as some believe, some kind of dark conspiracy by the corporate state to get its "man" -- in this case Clinton -- into the White House. The reality is far less satisfying: It's just the usual shoddy political journalism.

The media and political class started paying attention to these horse races long before they were even on the horizon of ordinary people. And scattered among their vapid stories about plunging necklines and glossy haircuts, the conventional wisdom was forming, as it always does, around which campaign was the current cycle's "unstoppable juggernaut." Those stories are essentially about the candidates' early fund-raising prowess -- and to some degree about which campaign does the best job managing the opinions of political reporters -- but as more voters focus on the race, they create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as people always want to back a winner.

But that kind of support is soft, and while Clinton still enjoys a commanding nationwide lead -- she was 26 points ahead of Edwards in the CNN poll -- that lead's been melting down in recent weeks. The race in the early primary states is a lot closer than the numbers nationwide. Obama leads the field in Iowa, where all three of the top Dems are within spitting distance -- less than seven points separate Edwards and Obama -- and Clinton leads Obama by an average of just three points in New Hampshire.

Democratic primary voters may still be looking for the "anti-Hillary," and Edwards' aggressively populist message may be resonating with Iowa caucus-goers in a way that comfortably middle-class pundits can't grasp; polls show that a majority of Americans believe the country's in recession, and the economy is displacing Iraq as voters' top issue in 2008.

Clinton and Obama have been sniping at each other relentlessly, so despite Clinton's massive cash advantage, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which Edwards, creeping stealthily by the Obama-Clinton food fights and speaking to a middle class that knows it's being sold down the river, might come out on top (or second) in Iowa. That could force the media to write a new story of campaign 2008 and lead to a ripple effect in New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada and down the line.

Ultimately, it's understandable that electability would be an imperative for progressives and Democrats after being pummeled and bruised by eight years of Bush, although there's some evidence that it's much more important to political writers than to the electorate. And the Clintons, despite carrying some heavy baggage, have won four high-stakes elections in a row. It's hard to deny that there's some appeal in that after the tepid campaigns of Kerry in '04 and Gore before him.

But I see it differently. I see revelations of Giuliani's perfidy emerging week after week, Tom Tancredo warning of the coming Mexi-fascist invasion and the party's nativist wing shredding Saint John McCain -- erstwhile media darling -- for letting it happen, as Romney and Huckabee engage in open sectarian conflict before crowds of scary-looking GOP primary voters. And it occurs to me that if ever there were a year to vote for the candidate whose values matched one's own, it's this one, because if the eventual nominee manages to lose to the fetid corpse that is the Republican "brand," then they should just fold up the whole Democratic tent and start from scratch.

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