Edwards, Clinton and Questions About Their Electability in ’08

by Stuart Rothenberg October 18, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

For weeks now, the campaign of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has been hammering away about New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s greatest alleged vulnerability: her electability. It’s a good strategy, at least in theory, since Democratic voters will not nominate someone for president who they think will lose the White House again.

Unfortunately for Edwards, there is little evidence that Clinton cannot be elected president or that Edwards has a measurably better chance of being elected than she does.

First, the good news for Edwards, as well as for critics of Clinton.

The former first lady’s personal negative ratings are higher than any politician would like. Her unfavorable ratings generally are about 10 points higher than either Edwards’ or Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.). Clinton’s unfavorable ratings in most national surveys fall in the 40 percent to 45 percent range, and they are in that same range in Quinnipiac University polls in key states such as Ohio and Florida.

Given those numbers, it isn’t surprising that a mid-September CNN/WMUR-TV poll found New Hampshire Democratic voters saying that Clinton is less likable than Obama or Edwards.

According to an early September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, one in five adults had a “very negative” view of the New York Senator, demonstrating an intensity with which other Democrats are not saddled.

Anecdotally, when I’m around the country talking about politics, I inevitably seem to run into Democratic voters who tell me they want to vote Democratic next year but don’t think they can vote for Clinton.

But the rest of the evidence argues that the New York Senator would be at least as strong a Democratic nominee as either Edwards or Obama.

On the question of “how confident” survey respondents would be in the various candidates’ “skills and ability necessary to be president,” Clinton easily bests her Democratic adversaries in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

Surveys also show that she widely is regarded as having many of the attributes needed by a president. An early September CNN poll found six in 10 respondents picked Clinton as having “the right experience to be president,” while only 15 percent picked the second-place Democrat, Edwards, and 9 percent picked Obama.

The same survey also found a plurality of voters (42 percent) selecting Clinton as the Democrat best described by “Is most likely to bring needed change to the U.S.” Obama was second with 30 percent, while Edwards was a distant third at 10 percent.

A CNN/WMUR-TV poll of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters found much the same. Clinton was seen by 54 percent of those polled as having “the best chance of beating the Republican nominee in the general election next November,” as having the “right experience to be President,” and as most likely to bring change.

Surely even a bigger problem for Edwards is that recent ballot tests show Clinton beating the leading Republican contenders, and in most cases, running as well or better than her main Democratic rivals.

August’s Quinnipiac national survey showed Clinton leading former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani by 3 points, while Edwards was up by a single point and Obama and Giuliani were even. Matched against former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), Clinton held a 49 percent to 38 percent advantage, while Obama was up 46 percent to 35 percent and Edwards was leading Thompson 49 percent to 32 percent.

CNN’s early September national survey found Clinton beating Giuliani 50 percent to 46 percent, while the former mayor held a 49 percent to 45 percent advantage over Obama.

Finally, there is the whole question of Edwards’ description of his own appeal.

On “Meet the Press” last weekend, Edwards said: “I am the candidate running for president on the Democratic side who’s actually won an election in a red state running against the Jesse Helms political machine. I know what you have to do to win in battleground states, and to win in tough, tough Congressional districts … I understand people who vote in those places, and they connect and relate to me.”

Edwards beat incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998, a bad year for Republicans nationally. He made Faircloth the issue and benefited from the contrast between the two candidates.

But had Edwards run for re-election in 2004, he might well have lost to then-Rep. Richard Burr (R). By that time, Edwards had established a relatively liberal record in the Senate, making him much less appealing to state voters.

Edwards, of course, couldn’t carry his own state during the 2004 presidential race, and the Democratic ticket didn’t carry a single Southern state (though it is certainly unfair to blame him entirely for the ticket’s lack of appeal in Dixie).

The former North Carolina Senator seems to think that his Southern accent and stories about his father’s work in a textile mill and his mother’s days as a letter carrier will ingratiate himself with moderate and conservative populists. But after Republicans hammer him for his expensive haircuts, huge home and liberal views, his appeal to swing and socially conservative voters will suffer. For now, Edwards’ negatives aren’t as high as Clinton’s because he hasn’t been a national target for more than a dozen years.

It is of course true that Clinton could stumble in the next few months. But for Democrats hoping that doubts about her electability will derail her candidacy, the current evidence is skimpy.