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Clinton's Support Among Liberals is Rising

Fans of Clinton (and not of Bush) in Clinton, Iowa this weekend. (AP).

Hillary Clinton's opponents have accused her of sounding too hawkish on Iran, of refusing to commit to a firmer timetable for removing troops from Iraq and of generally moving to the center -- all criticisms designed to undermine her support among the Democratic Party's liberal base.

But a new Washington Post-ABC News poll of the 2008 race shows a surprising trend: Clinton's support among liberals is actually rising, not falling, as the nomination debate has intensified.

A review of Post-ABC polls throughout the year, assembled by analyst Jennifer Agiesta of our polling unit, shows that Clinton has expanded her overall lead in the Democratic race in large part because of growing support among self-identified liberals.

The new poll showed 54 percent of liberals said they supported Clinton for the Democratic nomination, the second consecutive poll in which she has won the backing of more than half of all liberals. That represents a significant jump in liberal support from earlier in the year, when she was backed by 40-43 percent of those who identified themselves as liberals.

The opposite has happened to Barack Obama. His support among liberals has actually declined over the course of the campaign. He began the year with the support of 33 percent of liberals, topped out at 36 percent in July and now has drifted down to 25 percent.

Meanwhile, both the support Clinton and Obama have among moderate and conservative Democrats has changed relatively little since the beginning of the year. Last February 44 percent of moderates and conservatives said they supported Clinton and in the new poll, that figure is 46 percent. For Obama, his moderate/conservative support in February was 24 percent; today it's 26 percent.

Another way to look at this is by comparing the Clinton-Obama margins among the different groups at the beginning of the year and today. In February Clinton had a 20-point advantage over Obama among moderates-and-conservative Democrats but just a 7-point margin among liberals. In the new poll, Clinton's margin among moderates and conservatives is 20 points, but her margin among liberals had jumped to 29 points.

If Clinton's opponents believe she is vulnerable because of her positions on Iraq and Iran, the polls do not bear it out. The Post-ABC News poll asked Democrats to say, regardless of whom they support for the nomination, which candidate would be best able to handle the situation in Iraq and in Iran. In both cases her support among liberals was slightly higher than her support from moderate and conservatives.

On Iraq, 54 percent of liberals and 48 percent of moderates said Clinton was best equipped to handle the situation there, while a quarter of each group named Obama. On Iran, 56 percent of liberals and 50 percent of moderates named Clinton as the person they thought could best deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

Clinton also has continued to enjoy solid support among those Democrats who favor immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq -- something only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has advocated. In the latest Post-ABC poll, 45 percent of those who support immediate withdrawal said they prefer Clinton as the Democratic nominee compared to 26 percent for Obama.

Obama has campaigned throughout the year on his early opposition to the war. Clinton voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war against Iraq, but Obama, as a candidate for the Senate, spoke out against it at the time.

But Clinton has widened her margin over Obama among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who say get out now. In June, she led Obama by 8 points among those who favor immediate withdrawal; in the new poll, she leads by 19 points.

What's interesting about all these results is that they run counter to the implications of the campaign debate. Clinton, after all, is the candidate who has not renounced her vote for the Iraq war and the only candidate to vote for a resolution on Iran that opponents said gave a free hand to Bush to use military force there.

She is the candidate who defended taking money from Washington lobbyists and who argued that the only practical way to bring about change is by working within the current system, not by trying to fundamentally change it, as Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards have argued.

Finally she is a Clinton, the spouse of a president whom many liberal Democrats believe moved the party too much toward the center, who created an unholy alliance with corporate and moneyed interests and whose economic policies catered more to Wall Street bond dealers than average workers.

Both Clinton obviously reject many of the specifics of the case against them, but the ongoing argument about the direction of the party that has played out the past few years in the blogosphere and elsewhere revolves around what happened during the Clinton presidency and whether a return to those days would be good for Democrats or bad.

That argument is not strictly a left-right debate, but more liberals tend to fall on one side of it than the other. That Clinton has seen her support among liberals rise as Obama's has fallen suggests that other factors may be the driving force in the Democratic nomination battle.

Four years ago, a party that was moving left and increasingly anti-war ended up rejecting the darling of the anti-war wing of the party, Howard Dean, in favor of someone who had voted in favor of the war resolution. In that case, John Kerry's electability counted for more than Dean's opposition to the war. That same calculation may be at work in the 2008 nomination fight.

But there is an important chapter still to be played out. Clinton's opponents have just begun to sharpen their criticism of her and by December it's likely that television ads in Iowa will be airing that directly attack her. Only then will it be clear how strong a front-runner she really is. But at this point, her growing strength among liberals points to one more obstacle for her opponents to overcome.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 5, 2007; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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