Hillary Who?

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
James Carville and Mark Penn wrote a recent Washington Post op-ed touting Hillary Clinton's strength as a presidential candidate, and the Post somehow found it unnecessary to disclose to its readers that Penn is currently employed as Clinton's top pollster. In the wake of the most recent fake scandal regarding conflicts of interest in the blogosphere, there was a certain grim humor in seeing the establishment press offer up a perfect and all-too-typical example of the real thing. But the substance of Carville and Penn's case is even more humorous.

Here is an op-ed arguing for Clinton's strength as a candidate that rather curiously fails to tout her strength in any serious way while remaining relentlessly upbeat. Carville and Penn have nothing but good things to say about Clinton, but what they have to say isn't very good.

"We don't know whether Hillary will run," they conclude, "But we do know that if she runs, she can win."

This has the virtue of being true. It's also extraordinarily trivial. Despite the convention of labeling certain candidates "unelectable," it's extremely hard to believe that there's any mainstream political figure who would be actually incapable of winning a general election after having secured a major party nomination. Indeed, it's worth noting that the political science research on whether candidate attributes and campaign tactics impact electoral outcomes at all is a bit ambiguous.

But recent elections have been so close that one is inclined to say that "everything matters" on some level, and this is probably correct. If Al Gore had been a bit more charismatic, he would have won. Then again, he would have won if a little boy in a boat hadn't happened to have washed up in Florida at the particular time he did. And, of course, he would have won had Theresa LePore designed the Palm Beach County ballots differently. And maybe he would have won if he'd adopted an entirely different set of campaign tactics. Who knows? Everything matters in a razor-close election. But by the same token, just about anyone could win if the stars aligned correctly, and pretty much nobody can win if they don't catch some breaks.

Clinton's hired hands are, in other words, mounting a mighty weak argument on her behalf. They're not saying she's more likely to win than are the plausible alternatives, just that she can win.

The evidence, however, tends to indicate that she'd be a relatively weak candidate. The main source of information we have comes from the 2000 election, where she won a contest for an open Senate seat in New York by a healthy 12 percentage point margin. That's a pretty good result. But as Brendan Nyhan points out, just two years earlier Chuck Schumer beat an incumbent Republican senator by 11 percentage points. The same year Clinton was running, Al Gore won New York's electoral votes by 25 percentage points. Four years later, John Kerry achieved an 18 percentage point margin.

A straightforward read of this data is that Clinton has less electoral appeal than Kerry or Gore, and about the same (or maybe even worse, depending on what you think of the incumbency factor) level of electability as Chuck Schumer. Nobody, of course, thinks Schumer should run for president, though he has considerably more experience as a legislator than Clinton. The reason for this is clear — a candidate who seems likely to run 6-13 points behind Kerry and Gore, all else being equal, simply isn't a very appealing choice.

Perhaps there's a sound rebuttal available to this view, but the Clinton camp hasn't deigned to share it with the public. Instead, her allies have tended to point to her performance in upstate New York as evidence of her potential appeal in "red" counties and states. But as Marisa Katz has argued, there are at least two problems with this — upstate New York isn't actually like a "red" state, and Clinton did worse upstate than did Kerry or Gore.

Which is all fine. It's by no means necessary to support the "most electable" candidate in any given race. Indeed, I believe the tendency of Democrats to think along those lines in 2004 proved to be a serious error. But Clinton has gone out of her way to avoid giving liberals anything substantive to get excited about. If that lack of effort at a substantive appeal leaves her only with a case based on electability — and if the evidence on that score is so tilted against her that even her own pollster can only muster a feeble "she can win" — there's a real problem.

There's plenty of time between now and the primaries. But if Clinton wants my support, she'd better put it to good use. Reasons abound for being skeptical about her candidacy from the point of view of pure partisan cynicism; she'll need to come up with some way to impress me on the merits.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved