Friday, May 23, 2008

Obama surging in California

By Michael J.W. Stickings

From U.S. News & World Report:

A new poll released today in California finds political momentum shifting dramatically toward Barack Obama — and away from both Hillary Clinton and John McCain — in the nation's most populous state. According to a survey conducted over the past 10 days by the Public Policy Institute of California, 59 percent of likely voters here now have a "favorable" impression of Democrat Obama, while a majority view both of the other candidates unfavorably. In a state whose Democratic primary Clinton won in February, 51 percent of voters now say they have an unfavorable opinion of her; 53 percent of voters feel the same way about Republican McCain.

Obama, meanwhile, seems to be making strides across nearly every constituency. If the general election were held today, 54 percent of Californians say they would vote for him, compared with 37 percent for McCain. That gap has widened by 8 points since March. Obama enjoys the support of more than 80 percent of Democrats here, along with over half (55 percent) of independents. He leads McCain among men and women and is viewed favorably by nearly 70 percent of Latinos—a powerful political group, experts note, not just in California but in several other western states, including Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

While there has been an epidemic of hand-wringing among Democratic political analysts over Obama's inability to win over low-income white voters in states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where Clinton has dominated recent primaries, California seems to be a different story. Obama leads McCain by a double-digit margin here among likely voters, no matter what their incomes. He enjoys a 55-to-35 percent lead among those who make less than $40,000 a year, including whites; a 55-to-36 percent lead among those who make between $40,000 and $80,000; and a 53-to-37 percent lead among those who make $80,000 or more.

"As the presidential campaign has moved further away from California, what's been taking place is solid support among Democrats and increasing support among independent voters," says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, the nonpartisan group that released the poll, which surveyed more than 2,000 voters. "John McCain is certainly going to have his work cut out for him here."

It's far too early to read too much into this, but, as I have argued before, some of the concerns raised about Obama's electability (that is, his ability to win the general election) have been overblown. It is true that, in general, he has performed poorly in the primaries among certain demographic groups, such as working-class whites (as they are euphemistically called), women, the elderly, and Hispanics. But he has performed poorly not in absolute terms but in relative ones -- that is, relative to Hillary. And Hillary has been a strong candidate with wide appeal. If not for Obama, she would have won the nomination easily.

The Clinton campaign and her supporters like to argue (whether they actually believe it or not is another matter) that his poor performance among such groups proves that he is, overall, a weaker candidate, for the general election, than she is. However, this argument is simply wrong. It suggests that the Obama-Clinton race is an either/or contest. It isn't. A vote for one is not necessarily a vote against the other.

A voter -- say, from one of Hillary's core groups of support -- may vote for Hillary over Obama in a primary contest but then go on to vote for Obama over McCain. After all, most of those who have voted for Hillary are Democrats. Some will simply not vote for Obama -- some will sit out, others will vote for McCain -- but it simply does not follow that Obama's relatively poor performance among certain groups means that he would lose those groups in November. True, Hillary's relatively strong performance among working-class whites in the Rust Belt and Appalachia is cause for (some) concern, but Obama has performed well among independents and Republicans throughout the primaries and would have the entire general election campaign to reach out to those voters, as well as to Hillary's other core support groups. (Remember, he lost California to Hillary. He would not, however, lose California to McCain. Nor would he lose New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and he would likely do well in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and probably also Florida.)

California may be rather unlike the rest of the country -- although I suspect the rest of the country is more like California than it would care to admit -- but what seems to be happening there could very well happen everywhere. Once he is the nominee, once he is up against McCain and the Republicans and isn't battling a strong candidate like Hillary, one who has won over voters he would otherwise have won over himself, Obama could (and should) consolidate support among Democrats, continue to appeal to independents and Republicans, reach out in meaningful ways to those demographic groups among which he has performed poorly, and push ahead to November with the candidacy of hope and change that has brought him this far already.

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