Does Hillary Clinton (D-NY) have a point that Barack Obama (D-IL) is the weaker candidate against John McCain (R-AZ) because of his inexperience and inability to attract white, blue collar support? Is Obama justified in his claims that Clinton is the weaker candidate in the general election because she is too polarizing and Americans are sick of Slick?   

The truth is, there are arguments to be made on both sides: Both candidates do equally well against McCain in blue states – they both enjoy a 20-point advantage – and do equally badly against McCain in red states. At this juncture, neither Dem candidate can claim being more “electable” than the other – and The Times of London’s political observer Gerard Baker pooh-poohs the conventional wisdom that “the reason for the party’s current disarray is that it just happens to have two most extraordinary candidates” by offering “an alternative explanation … the voters have grasped rather better than their necromancers in the media. Both are losers.”

Be that as it may, the odds are that Obama will be going head-to-head with McCain in the general election, so it’s time to take a hard look at whether Dems will line up behind him – never mind Bush-fatigued Republican crossovers.   

The Wall Street Journal notes that Hillary’s PA primary win is “stoking concerns about …  Obama’s appeal in a general election” but that he “remains the favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination”:

Sen. Obama’s defeat in Pennsylvania by nearly 10 percentage points, on top of a similar loss to the New York senator in Ohio last month, reflected poor showings among white working-class voters and Roman Catholics – two key voting blocs in a crucial state. Some Democratic officials say that could bode badly for a race against Republican Sen. John McCain, who has strong appeal to some independent and crossover voters. …

For many superdelegates, the doubts about Sen. Obama’s relatively weak support among the Democrats’ base voters are allayed by the millions of new voters – especially younger voters and first-time African-American voters – he has brought into the party. Also, the Obama campaign is exploiting a widespread sense of fatigue with Sen. Clinton and former President Clinton within the party.

But The Journal’s John Fund cites exit polls suggesting that McCain will get a higher percentage of Dem crossover votes if Obama is the nominee:

Ten percent of Democrats said they would sit on their hands in a McCain-Obama race, and 15% said they would vote for McCain over the Illinois senator. That’s a significantly higher “grumble factor” than in a possible McCain-Clinton race, in which 6% of those voting said they would stay home and 11% said they would vote for Mr. McCain over Mrs. Clinton.

Given that Pennsylvania voted for John Kerry over George W. Bush by barely two points in 2004, the exit polls in last night’s Democratic primary are an open invitation for Mr. McCain to spend lots of time and money in the state.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. also highlights a “little-noticed finding … that 6 percent of Clinton’s own voters said that they would defect to John McCain in the fall against Clinton herself. These Pennsylvania Democrats clearly were not Clinton enthusiasts. They were voting against Obama.”

Ãœber pundit Robert Novak explains the exit polling data by raising the specter of the Bradley Effect:

John McCain is a potential winner not only in Pennsylvania but also Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and can retain Ohio. But there seems no way Clinton can overtake Obama’s lead in delegates and the popular vote. For unelected super-delegates to deprive Obama of the nomination would so depress African-American general election votes that the nomination would be worthless. In a year when all normal political indicators point to Republican defeat on all fronts, the Democratic Party faces a deepening dilemma. …

Democratic politicians today see no viable alternative to Barack Obama as their nominee. Their hard assessment is that Hillary Clinton clawing her way to the nomination could mean 25 percent McCain support from a radically depleted African-American turnout – a prescription for disaster.

For its part, The New York Times examines the Bradley Effect’s inverse:

While arguably critical to determining the viability of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, the role of race is difficult to disentangle from the other strands of the political debate surrounding him, encompassing topics like values, elitism, ideology and experience. …

A poll of Democratic voters conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the television networks and The Associated Press found that Mrs. Clinton drew 63 percent of the white vote while Mr. Obama drew 90 percent of the black vote, mirroring a pattern in many other states.

Should Mrs. Clinton win the nomination, some Democrats said, there is a risk that she would be unable to mobilize African-American voters to support her if she won in a way that was viewed as unfair by black voters.

 So if Obama’s electability – or unelectibility – doesn’t hinge entirely on race (the candidate himself does not believe it will be the deciding factor) then why can New York Times columnist Bob Herbert “almost feel the air seeping out of the Obama phenomenon?” Herbert blames “Senator Obama’s strange reluctance to fight harder in public for the nomination. He may feel he doesn’t need to, that he has the nomination wrapped up. But there is such a thing as being too cool.” 

Herbert’s colleague Paul Krugman bemoans the Obama campaign’s “self-inflicted state of confusion”:

After Barack Obama’s defeat in Pennsylvania, David Axelrod, his campaign manager, brushed it off: “Nothing has changed tonight in the basic physics of this race.”

He may well be right – but what a comedown. A few months ago the Obama campaign was talking about transcendence. Now it’s talking about math. “Yes we can” has become “No she can’t.”

This wasn’t the way things were supposed to play out.

Mr. Obama was supposed to be a transformational figure, with an almost magical ability to transcend partisan differences and unify the nation. Once voters got to know him – and once he had eliminated Hillary Clinton’s initial financial and organizational advantage – he was supposed to sweep easily to the nomination, then march on to a huge victory in November.

Well, now he has an overwhelming money advantage and the support of much of the Democratic establishment – yet he still can’t seem to win over large blocs of Democratic voters, especially among the white working class.

With his exhaustive numbers-crunching and invaluable charting, Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics demonstrates that the PA primary results underscore “what we have seen again and again in this contest”:

Clinton continues to do well with “downscale” whites. Obama does well with “upscale” whites and African Americans. What is intriguing about this result is not just that it is similar to Ohio – but also that it is similar after seven weeks and millions of dollars in campaign expenditures. Clearly, these voting groups are entrenched.”

 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Salena Zito defines Obama’s problem: 

This nation has a history of looking closely at its candidates and taking their measure before they vote for them. It is a process that Obama shuns and rival Hillary Clinton thrives on – and therein lies the problem for Democrats. … 

Yes, Obama won lunch-pail Democrat votes in caucuses, but remember: Caucus participants, for the most part, are party activists who cling to the farthest-left end of the platform; they are not Middle America.  So why the disconnect with the Democrats’ core constituency?  

The appearance is that Obama does not understand them; they are outside the realm of his “change” message.  

When Obama finally sat down to an interview with “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace – who had extended the invitation 772 days earlier – he repeatedly squandered chance after chance to appeal directly to blue collar voters, choosing instead to sidestep Wallace’s questions, or to assume these voters will automatically flock to him in the general election without his having earned their votes: 

Wallace: [Y]our defeat in Pennsylvania raises new questions about your candidacy and especially about some of the pillars of the Democratic base. … Among white union households, Clinton beat you 72 percent to 28 percent. Among white Catholics, again, same margin — 72 percent to 28 percent. Senator, why are you having such trouble convincing white working class voters that you’re their guy? 

Obama: Well, keep in mind that Senator Clinton was well regarded in the state of Pennsylvania, just as she was well regarded in the state of Ohio. The fact that they voted for her shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. We started out 20 points down in that race, just like we started 20 points down in Ohio. And we actually made significant progress there.  

Wallace: [S]ome liberal observers, say that part of your problem is that you come off as a former law professor who talks about transforming politics when the lunch bucket crowd really wants to know what you’re going to do for them. Bob Herbert, columnist for the New York Times, happens to be a black man, says that Hillary Clinton seems tougher than you do. 

Obama: The fact of the matter is that, you know, we have done well among every group because people are less interested in dividing the country along racial lines or regional lines. They’re really focused on how are we going to solve these big problems right now. 

Wallace: But when you see yourself among these groups losing 70 percent to 30 percent, you aren’t troubled by that? Don’t you think to yourself, “Maybe I need to have a different message or a new message, or a different way of reaching out to them?” 

Obama: [I]t’s not like I’ve been winning in states that only have either black voters or Chablis-drinking, you know, limousine liberals. I mean, we’ve been winning in places like Idaho. We’ve been winning in places like Colorado.  … Now, what I think is absolutely true is that Senator Clinton ran good campaigns in Ohio. She ran good campaigns in Pennsylvania. … [S]ome of these blue-collar voters … are less familiar with me than they are with her, and so we probably have to work a little bit harder. 

So why didn’t Obama work harder to use the 36 minutes Fox News gave him to make these voters more familiar with him, and with how he will make their lives better if they vote for him?  It boggles the mind – and ought to worry the superdelegates.  

In a blow so low even Billary couldn’t bring themselves to use this line of attack, The New Republic’s John Judis wonders whether Obama is “the next McGovern,” and Karl Rove likens Obama to Adlai E. Stevenson. Whatever. They were both losers and it’s Obama’s job to prove to voters (and to Gerard Baker) that he’s not one, too.  

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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