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Is Obama Or Clinton The Better General Election Candidate?

By Thomas Edsall

The extended battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton raises numerous interesting questions: Which candidate can better put the Democratic party back together for the general election? Is a nomination fight that could last all the way to the convention a negative or positive? Which is better going into the general election, the Clinton or Obama primary coalition?

These questions and others have captured the imagination of many of those closely watching the contest.

Take, for example, William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. On the assumption that the general election will ride on who wins the battleground states, the question then becomes, which are the battlegrounds?

"In my mind, there are slow-growing battlegrounds, including much of the Great Lakes and Midwest (e.g. Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, among others) and fast growing battlegrounds (e.g. Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, as well as Florida, among others)," Frey says.

If the fight comes down to the slow-growing states, "Hillary should have a strong advantage, because Obama's post-boomer appeal will turn off the aging baby boomers and seniors who would be more likely to go for McCain than to someone much younger and hipper, not to mention non-white."

Conversely, Frey argues, "Obama will have the advantage in the more diverse, fast growing battlegrounds. Not only is he a self proclaimed post-baby-boomer, but in many respects, he leads the way toward a post-ethnic, post-partisan America, which is spreading out to these states."

Frey suggested that "this election, like the last one, could depend on the 'old white belt' of the slow growing battlegrounds, in which case Hillary would fare better in perhaps the last battle of aging white presidential candidates."

Looking at the election on a state-by-state basis, Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz came to a different conclusion:

"Obama does better in the western states. She does better in the Northeast, but those states are almost certain to end up in the D column anyway. So on balance, I'd say he looks a little stronger because of his ability to generate higher turnout of some Democratic constituencies and his ability to turn some previously red states into battlegrounds: Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, maybe even Texas."

American Prospect contributing editor Adele Stan looked at the issue from the vantage point of completing constituencies, contending that the general election advantage falls to Obama:

"Barack Obama stands to inherit most of Hillary Clinton's coalition, minus the party's racists. Clinton will likely lose more of the party's sexists, plus its new contingent of young voters (who may just stay home) ... Hillary's strength is among white people over 50; Barack's is among young people of all backgrounds. McCain could cut into Hillary's advantage with older whites, but is unlikely to get Obama's young people. So, I would say that the Obama coalition has a slight advantage over Clinton's in the general.

Robert Borosage, co-chair of the Campaign for America's Future, contended that Obama is the higher risk candidate, but he is also the candidate who could give the Democrats a major payout:

"Race is a powerful force in this society. Obama has potential, in my view, to have far greater upside than Hillary -- you can imagine him creating a realignment, with young people, Latinos, independent professionals, etc., joining working people in a new majority coalition. But Republicans will turn him into an alien, and since folks haven't had a chance to know him, the risks of a real downside are greater also."

The strongest case for Obama was voiced by a Republican, Alex Castellanos, who was a senior media consultant in both of George W. Bush's campaigns and in Mitt Romney's failed bid for the nomination.

"Obama is the hope and future of the Democratic Party, not Hillary, and everyone knows it. He is the one bringing new energy and voters. He could be a Democratic Reagan, invigorating the party for 25 years. If the Clinton people knee-cap Obama, it would be like killing Santa Claus Xmas morning in front of the children. The children won't forget or forgive."

Castellanos warned, however, that Obama carries his own liabilities:

"He is a weaker, consensus leader, not a strong leader in an uncertain world. Hillary is the past, polarizing, but a tough, strong leader in uncertain world. In 50's America terms, it is role reversal: It might be said that she is the tough, daddy bear candidate, and Obama is the weaker, consensus mommy bear candidate."

The costs (and benefits) of the exceptionally long Democratic nomination fight are not easily agreed upon.

Author Katha Pollitt sees it as pretty much an unmitigated disaster:

"I think it is BAD for the Democrats for the fight to go on, because inevitably Hillary and Obama will have to do their best to tarnish each other in ways that will turn off less-committed voters and will give McCain ammunition. HRC's saying she and McCain were ready to be commander-in-chief but Obama has just given speeches is a good example."

In contrast, Borosage contends that the length of the nomination fight "has been good thus far, getting the country accustomed to a black or woman at the head of ticket, getting both campaigns more ready for prime time.

"I think people overplay the negative effects of a nomination struggle. This one has helped excite people, kept Democrats in the news, raised masses of new donors and activists etc. Once over, both candidates have a stake in bringing party together. And while activists are bruised, low information voters are just getting sense of what's going on, and are not likely to be dismayed."

While Borosage anticipates that the contest will soon "get more destructive," he is sanguine about the detrimental consequences of some of the tough charges the candidates are throwing at each other.

"If Hillary's peddling Moslem, black church, Farrakhan, inexperience, yada-yada now -- and Obama learns how to respond (and how to talk to working people) -- she's not saying anything the Republicans won't say in far harsher terms."

Castellanos, however, sees virtually no pluses on a long primary fight.

"Look at the land wars across Russia. It didn't work out too well for Charles XII in 1707, Napoleon in 1812 or Hitler in 1941. In each case, the long campaign was no "victory" since the great armies were obliterated on the way. In each case near certain victory was turned into defeat by the length of the bloody campaign."

Thomas B. Edsall is the political editor of the Huffington Post.

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