Electability Question A Hard One To Answer

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., acknowledges the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
This column was written by CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic.

I worry when candidates start citing polls that show them ahead of their rivals. Candidates are expected to claim to dislike polls -- to attack those that say bad things about their prospects, often with characterizations like "The only poll that counts is the one on election day". Sometimes they just blame the pollsters by claiming they are biased. There was a lot of that in 2004.

This year, one leading candidate is citing polls in his claim to be the most electable.

In his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, Sen. Barack Obama told Steve Kroft: "I don't start off with 47 percent of the country thinking they're not gonna vote for me." Making the case that polls show him more electable than Sen. Hillary Clinton, he added: "The polls consistently show that … she's got problems with independents. And she's got problems with even moderate Republicans."

In her own 60 Minutes interview, Clinton claimed (without reference to polls) that she was already "vetted" for the fall campaign and could withstand Republican scrutiny. She added that Obama has "never had …a single negative ad run against him. …Until you have been through this experience, you have no idea what it's like. And he hasn't been. He's never, ever had to face this."

Do the current polls really tell us who is more electable? Actually, right now they don't even tell us who is ahead among Democratic voters. And when it comes to preference for the nomination, two different Gallup polls, conducted at the same time, have two different leaders, both within the polls' margins of error. So far in the primaries, neither candidate has won a majority of all votes cast, and calling one or the other the leader depends on whether or not you count the Michigan and Florida primaries.

As for electability, registered voters who said they had or would vote in a Democratic primary or caucus gave the edge to Clinton -- barely. In a CBS News Poll, 46 percent said Clinton had the best chance of winning in November, while 41 percent said Obama did.

Obama is touting national polls that pit him and Clinton against John McCain, now the clear Republican leader. In Obama's words: "There are lot of people out there who say, 'I'm trying to figure out who to vote for, McCain or Obama.' There aren't that many who are saying, 'I'm trying to figure out who to vote for, Clinton or McCain.'".

Time Magazine interviewed nearly 1,000 "likely voters" before the Super Tuesday primaries, and found Clinton running even with John McCain, 46 percent to 46 percent. Obama led McCain 48 percent to 41 percent. The latest USA Today-Gallup Poll (February 8-10) of just over 700 likely voters, shows an even smaller difference: Obama ahead of McCain 50 percent to 46 percent, and McCain and Clinton about even (49 percent McCain, 48 percent Clinton).

These are not big differences, and there isn't a "47 percent" in sight, as Obama had claimed. But there are other questions about November. The January CNN/ORC poll asked explicitly about whether people would definitely vote for Clinton (or Obama) if she (or he) won the Democratic nomination, would consider voting for her (or him), or would definitely not vote for her (or him). Forty-three percent said they would definitely not vote for Clinton. Thirty-eight percent said they definitely would not vote for Obama. But 37 percent said they would definitely vote for Clinton and 30 percent would definitely vote for Obama.

A lot can change between now and November. Negative sentiments in the heat of a primary battle often disappear by the time people start thinking seriously about a Republican-Democratic contest.

For many voters, being asked to imagine a complete scenario eight months in advance is hard: someone has to win the party's nomination and conduct a long campaign. There is still uncertainly about whether most Republicans will ultimately rally behind McCain.

Horserace results in February don't always predict elections. Four years ago, in late winter about one in ten voters in a CBS News/New York Times Poll were undecided when faced with a horserace question pitting John Kerry against George W. Bush, and another quarter admitted that, whatever they said at that time, they knew their minds could change. And ask Mike Dukakis how he feels about early fall horserace questions. In March 1988, he led George H.W. Bush in the Gallup Poll, 53 percent to 44 percent. In the November election, the figures were just about reversed.

This year, only 9 percent of exit-polled voters in the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries said electability was the most important candidate quality that affected their vote; and just 7 percent said that Saturday in Louisiana. All through the primary season, this small group of voters who deem electability all-important has pretty much split between Clinton and Obama -- just like the rest of the country. So, the good news is that electability is apparently a quality that matters more to pundits than to voters!
By Kathy Frankovic