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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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How Clinton Won

Hillary Clinton won last night by putting together the voting coalition that has held Democratic frontrunners in good stead for 75 years. Take a look at these numbers - all of which come from CNN's cross-tabulated exit polls. What you'll see is that Hillary Clinton won many elements of the traditional FDR coalition.

-Self-identified Democrats made up 54% of the electorate. She won them, 45% to 34%.

-She won voters without a college degree, 43% to 35%.

-She won voters with incomes less than $50,000, 47% to 32%.

-She won voters over the age of 65, 48% to 32%. She also won voters in their 40s (44% to 33%) and their 50s (39% to 30%).

-She won Catholics, 44% to 27%.

-She won urban voters, 43% to 35%. She won suburban voters, 42% to 35%.

-She won voters from union families, 40% to 31%.

-She won voters who said they have been "falling behind" economically, 43% to 33%.

-She won long-time voters, 38% to 33%.

Obama, on the other hand, had a very different electorate - one that has a bit in common with the insurgent candidacies of Gary Hart and Bill Bradley.

-He won Independents, 41% to 31%.

-He won voters with at least a college degree, 39% to 34%.

-He won voters who make more than $50,000, 40% to 35%.

-He won college age voters, 60% to 22%. He split voters in their late 20s, 35% to 37%. He won voters in their 30s, 43% to 36%.

-He split Protestant voters, 36% to 36%.

-He won rural voters, 39% to 34%.

-He split voters from non-union households, 39% to 38%.

-He won voters who said they were "getting ahead" economically, 48% to 31%.

-He won first time voters, 47% to 37%.

An additional ingredient to Clinton's success was a victory among female voters, 46% to 34%. Obama won male voters, 40% to 29%. But female voters outvoted male voters, 57% to 43%.

As I said, Clinton's is the type of electorate that has delivered Democrats the nomination again and again. These results remind me a great deal of the electorate that delivered Mondale the nomination in 1984 - noting, of course, the irony that Clinton won New Hampshire with this bloc and Mondale did not.

This suggests the model for Clinton moving forward: win by appealing to the traditional Democratic electorate. If she must fight Obama state-by-state, she would do well to reformulate this "Mondale Model" again and again.* This bloc of voters is more sizeable in other states.

Of course, what we do not yet know is whether Obama will be able to win one of the most loyal and potent parts of the traditional Democratic coalition, black voters. My intuition is that black voters will be absolutely critical to the prospects of Obama and Clinton.

Some pundits will probably reference Saturday's debate or Clinton's near-crying moment as reasons she surged late. The exit polling does not back this up. Obama won voters who decided sometime between a month and three days ago. And the two split voters who decided today - 39% to Clinton, 36% to Obama. Clinton dominated among voters who said they decided earlier than a month ago, 48% to 31%.

This supports the idea that Clinton won by mobilizing the traditional Democratic coalition that is demographically inclined to her. You don't just win elections by persuading people you're the best candidate. You win elections by getting those people out to the polls. This appears to be what Clinton did. Accordingly - the implication is that the polls were wrong not because of last-minute shifts. They were wrong because they underestimated Clinton's ability to draw out her base.

Final point. Clinton did something last night that most successful frontrunners have managed to do: use a reliably partisan voting coalition as a counterbalance to an opponent's momentum.

* - The idea of a "Mondale Model" should be taken only as reference to this particular primary strategy - using traditional Democratic groups to hold back an insurgent who appeals to upscale Dems. As Mondale beat Hart, so perhaps Clinton has found a way to beat Obama. I'm not making any arguments about the general election. I certainly am not predicting a 49-state sweep for the GOP should Clinton win the nomination!

-Jay Cost