Bill Clinton’s Real Impact on the Kentucky Senate Race

by Stuart Rothenberg March 10, 2014 · 9:30 AM EDT

The national media’s reaction to former President Bill Clinton’s recent trip to Kentucky to boost the Senate candidacy of Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was predictable.

Most of my colleagues in the media can’t resist a Clinton (Bill or Hillary) sighting, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s electoral test has become one of the go-to stories of this electoral cycle, even outside the Bluegrass State.

What is less understandable is why many of those who covered the Clinton event in Louisville didn’t address the question of his impact on the race in a serious way.

President Clinton continues to be a star among Democratic political activists, and he has not lost any of the personal and rhetorical skills that helped him to victories in two presidential contests. He can still excite and energize the Democratic base, and his ability to raise funds for Democrats is significant, making him an asset to Grimes’ campaign.

On the other hand, there really isn’t much reason to believe that an endorsement from Bill Clinton or an appearance by him at a rally will bring much more than that to the Democratic hopeful.

In a recent Washington Post piece, political reporter Philip Rucker observed that “Clinton is popular in Kentucky” and noted that he carried the state in both 1992 and 1996.

I am certainly prepared to believe that the former president is popular in Kentucky, but I have not been able to find state survey data to support the point or to find out exactly how popular, and with whom, he is.

Hillary Rodham Clinton did carry the state by better than 2-to-1 in the 2008 Democratic primary against Barack Obama, but that was in a closed primary, so it demonstrated her popularity only with Democrats and compared to the unpopular Obama. (The national exit poll showed Clinton’s margin with white primary voters was more than 3-to-1, and her greatest margins over Obama were in lower-income, blue-collar, overwhelmingly white counties.)

As for President Clinton’s past electoral success in the state, it’s far less decisive than you might assume from the fact that he carried the state twice.

He did better than Obama’s two weak showings (41.2 percent in 2008 and 37.8 percent in 2012), but Bill Clinton drew only 44.6 percent of the state’s popular vote in 1992 and 45.8 percent in 1996. In other words, he carried the state twice but with less than a majority and only because of the three-way race both years.

In most races, a candidate’s ability to draw 45 percent of the vote is not a sign of real strength.

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Bill Clinton is “popular” in Kentucky (whatever that means). Why on earth would anyone think that his endorsement and appearances for Grimes are likely to be decisive, or even important, in her challenge to McConnell?

As I noted in a July 2007 column, “Do Endorsements Matter in Today’s Presidential Races,” endorsements rarely are decisive in White House contests. I reiterated that conclusion seven months later in another column, “Kennedy’s Decision to Back Obama Not So Decisive After All.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama in the 2008 Massachusetts Democratic primary, which was won by Hillary Rodham Clinton, wasn’t any more decisive than were the endorsements of Howard Dean by Al Gore, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union before the 2004 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, in which Dean finished third.

Voters come to know the presidential candidates through the heavy media (especially television) coverage they receive, and those same voters arrive at their own opinions about the hopefuls.

No, a Senate race isn’t quite like a presidential contest in terms of the media attention it will receive, particularly if other big contests — a presidential race and a gubernatorial race — are taking place at the same time.

But the attention a McConnell-Grimes Senate race will receive this year will be extraordinary if the early coverage is any indication. And without a presidential contest or a gubernatorial race on the ballot in 2014 in Kentucky, the fight over the state’s Senate seat will become a de facto presidential contest in terms of the suffocating media attention it will receive.

That means that voters will be able to evaluate the candidates themselves, not base their voting decisions on endorsements.

Don’t get me wrong: Although Alison Lundergan Grimes is an underdog against Mitch McConnell, she has a chance to upset him. But she will have to do it by convincing voters that she is up to the job and that McConnell no longer is, and she must disagree with Obama on a number of high-profile issues.

Money is important for Grimes if she is going to oust McConnell, and Bill Clinton helped her raise $600,000 at a single event. That shouldn’t be ignored. But Alison Lundergan Grimes is going to have to win the election on her own, not on Bill Clinton’s coattails.