Posted by Brad @ 1:45 pm on April 23rd 2008

Ceilings

One of the arguments Hillary Clinton is making—as are, for the record, my co-bloggers—is that Barack Obama, despite his massive financial advantage and, in the case of Pennsylvania, a fair bit of time to hunker down, is still unable to put this race away on his own steam. That he has a glass ceiling when it comes to certain, mostly rust belt or white working class states. I find this argument persuasive to some extent. Certainly Adam is right that there isn’t any good reason Obama COULDN’T have won PA, particularly given his considerable advantages.

Of course, this argument is useless coming from Hillary Clinton, because the obvious answer is “well okay, Obama can’t put you away decisively, but what does that say about you that you’re losing to him?” But it may have bearing in the general in November. There are obvious answers to it as well—while there is the possibility that some Clinton voters will be lost to Obama, for the most part he gets a lot wider a field to work from (being able to pick up Independents, who did not vote in Ohio or Pennsylvania, or when they did (re-registering Dem to do so), were picked up decisively by Barack), and he gets a lot sharper contrast to draw. But it does in some ways narrow the battleground for him, in that McCain will be more competitive then he might otherwise be in places like OH/PA. And, though again it’s doesn’t really do anything in an argument within the Democratic race, as dispassionate observers it is noteworthy.

But I still take issue with Rojas’ argument that Obama, in the Democratic primary, is stuck at 45%, and that shows he has no room to grow against McCain who, the implication is, has no such ceiling.

But he’s hitting the same problem. In general election matchups, at a time when he has the general election entirely to himself, and the Democrats are at the height of a heated primary, he, too, is proving unable to get over on his Democratic opponents, at best tying Clinton and losing slightly to Obama. And, for that matter, in PA yesterday, 1/5th of Republican voters chose to not sign off on him (I’m guessing that might have been even higher if a fair few hadn’t jumped ship to vote Obama in the Dem primary). Ross Douthat makes this point well:

But by all rights, this ought to be a peak time for McCain’s numbers – not the peak, necessarily, but certainly a high point. His right-wing critics are making nice with him, his favorable ratings are sky-high, and his opponents are too busy driving each other’s negative ratings upward to spend any time (or money, more importantly) putting a dent in his halo. Moreoever, the Democrats’ intra-party tensions are bound to diminish once the party picks a nominee: At least some of the Hillary supporters who tell pollsters that they’d vote for McCain over Obama may actually follow through on that pledge, but a lot of today’s McCainocrats will come home to the Democratic fold when all is said and done.

Yet even with all this going for him, McCain’s poll numbers are bumping up against the same 45 percent ceiling that they’ve been hitting since December. If the election were held today – a pretty good day for McCain, all things considered – he’d probably lose to Obama, and might lose to Clinton as well. That doesn’t mean he will lose, by any stretch, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for November.

I’m still trying to puzzle through Obama’s glass ceiling in the Dem primary—though to be fair to Barack he is posting results in many states where he’s winning by 20 or more points (almost a fourth of his victories have been by that margin or more, actually), and what that means for the general, but it is worth keeping it in context that McCain is hardly looking like a “sky’s the limit” guy either.

4 Comments »

  1. You seem to be comparing actual vote tallies with polls, in that Obama’s getting votes (but not really breaking 45% in PA and OH) and McCain’s just being polled on from months out. They just aren’t the same thing.

    However, if I had to guess, I’d still say that Obama, once he’s the Democrat candidate, is going to go to 50% or so pretty quickly and he’s certainly odds-on favourite to win in November. I think that McCain is a stronger candidate in PA than Bush was, but Obama is stronger again in general than Kerry was (however, maybe he’s not stronger in PA than Kerry was). McCain winning PA is pretty unlikely, but I can sort of see him doing it if enough other things go his way (although it’s not at all certain, by any means, that he’ll even get the chance to exploit events). I guess at the moment I’d say McCain is about a 30% shot to win in November, from waaaay out, and he’s (not entirely uncoincidentally) about that (say, 5% less) to win PA if Obama is nominee.

    Comment by Adam — 4/23/2008 @ 10:30 pm

  2. No they aren’t the same thing (polling and votes cast), but neither are primary votes and general votes. And besides, by that reckoning I could reasonably assume that all the Democrats will vote for Obama when he’s the nominee, and all the Republicans who aren’t voting for McCain now will also vote Obama. One can play that game both ways (I wonder, actually, which is more predictive of general election voting results—primary voting results, or general election polling. I would guess the latter, offhand).

    On the second paragraph, you and I more or less see it completely the same way. I’d even give McCain slightly higher odds.

    Comment by Brad — 4/23/2008 @ 10:41 pm

  3. Rojas’s point was specifically about the primary votes though, wasn’t it? There is a certain interest in the fact that he only won 45% of the Democrat votes, even with the influx of (mostly pro-Obama) new voters, when combined with the stated intent of a little over half of Clinton’s Pennsylvania voters not to vote for Obama in November should he win the nomination (although as I said elsewhere, I think that number will fall once they calm down). I think that strategically it’s not so bad, because the opponent is McCain, who’s not a ‘mobilise the base’ guy either so it won’t be a ‘mobilise the base’ election (at least not by Rovian standards), and they’ll duke it out for the independents, to whom both have appeal but Obama looks stronger. However, the superdelegates, although they still have to back Obama at the moment, are perhaps less prepared to risk it on an appeal to independents; they are, after all, party animals to a large extent and they’d like to see the base shored up; it’s not going to shift them to Clinton, but it’s one on a laundry list of things that might combine to do it (that list is currently much emptier than it would have to be, though).

    Incidentally, I don’t think that it need be a disaster for McCain when the Democrats get a semi-official candidate, because he’s probably more appealing when a contrast is made — before that contrast is made, he has the Republicans who can stand him and people like me that have supported him a long time, but I don’t think that he’s winning anyone new until a choice needs be made, and that means a definite opponent — although it’s also a risk because Obama’s also an appealing candidate. It’ll be really interesting in some ways, because the most appealing traits of the two of them have some overlap (a certain amount of bipartisanship or post-partisanship, suitably exaggerated for both of them, for example) but also some large differences (Obama’s vibrant and eloquent, McCain’s brave and determined) that aren’t in competition so much as gliding by each other. It’s possible to like both of them at the same time, which seems to be pretty unusual (you could sort of do it with Bush Sr and Clinton, but really there it was more a case of not hating the guy you weren’t supporting).

    Comment by Adam — 4/23/2008 @ 10:59 pm

  4. It’s an interesting argument you put forward in the second paragraph, but real quick:

    “Rojasís point was specifically about the primary votes though, wasnít it?”

    He can correct me, but when he made the point he was talking about general election matchup polling, as I recall, and the fact that Obama can’t crack 45% is bad, but I may have gotten the point confused In any case, my objection was to Rojas arguing that the 45% represents some kind of ceiling for Obama—that he ought to be at his peak right now, and thus he’s hit his ceiling; I’d argue, and have, that there is much more reason to think that that is true of McCain right now than Obama.

    Comment by Brad — 4/23/2008 @ 11:04 pm

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