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Parsing the Polls: Clinton and the Electability Factor

In handicapping her chances for the nomination, there is perhaps no stronger argument in Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) favor than the fact that most Democrats believe she represents their best chance of getting the White House back in 2008.

With their party out of power in the Oval Office for the past seven years, the priority for many Democrats appears to be winning -- no matter what that entails or who they have to nominate to make it happen.

The newest NBC/WSJ poll provides some intriguing numbers that suggest that the power of Clinton's electability has grown in recent months and may well provide a key to understanding her continued lead in national surveys.

Let's Parse the Polls!

We start with the horse race numbers in the NBC/WSJ poll. Clinton led with 44 percent followed by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) at 23 percent, and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) at 16 percent. No other candidate received more than four percent of the vote. That poll, in the field from Sept. 7-10, mirrored the results of the previous NBC/WSJ poll in July that had Clinton at 43 percent, Obama at 22 percent and Edwards at 13 percent.

But, the NBC/WSJ survey conducted in April showed a far different race, with Clinton narrowly leading Obama, 36 percent to 31 percent, while Edwards took 20 percent.

A look further inside the numbers suggest electability may have something to do with that change.

When Democrats (or those who said they would vote in a Democratic primary) were asked in April "Which candidate has the best chance to defeat the Republican candidate and win back the White House," 39 percent said Clinton while 32 percent said Obama and 22 percent named Edwards.

Five months later, 54 percent said Clinton was the Democrat best able to beat a Republican in the general election, a gain of 15 points over that time. Obama, meanwhile, dropped 14 points down to 18 percent while Edwards fell seven points to 15 percent.

Those numbers jibe with two surveys conducted by the Washington Post over the summer -- one a national poll, the other of Iowa Democrats.

In the national survey, 54 percent of Democrats said Clinton had "the best chance to defeat the Republican nominee in the general election" while 22 percent named Obama and just nine percent opted for Gore.

The Iowa poll was slightly less lopsided, although Clinton -- with 36 percent -- was the clear choice as the strongest potential nominee for Democrats. Obama (22 percent) and Edwards (20 percent) were roughly tied for second as the most electable.

What's changed? It's hard to pinpoint any one factor as responsible for the increased perception that Clinton is the strongest Democratic general election nominee. Our guess would be that the collective weight of her strong and consistent performances in the televised debates to date and the slew of national polls that have shown her as the frontrunner have a lot to do with her changing image in the minds of some Democratic voters.

(One caveat worth noting -- especially if you're Obama or Edwards: In head to head general election matchups, Clinton, Obama and Edwards all tend to run ahead of the three most likely Republican nominees. Under that logic, Democrats hold a structural advantage over Republicans that has little to do with Clinton and a lot to do with the war in Iraq and President Bush's unpopularity.)

It appears to be a piece of good luck for Clinton that even as more Democrats are seeing her as their strongest candidate there is a simultaneous pragmatic strain within the party. In the NBC/WSJ poll, 40 percent of Democrats said it was more important that the nominee has the "best chance of defeating the Republican nominee" while 48 percent said it was more important that the nominee agreed with them on most issues."

Contrast that with the response to the same question posed to Republicans in the NBC/WSJ poll. Just 26 percent of Republicans said it was more important for their nominee to have the best chance of defeating the Democrat while 62 percent said it was more important for the nominee to share their views on issues.

We've written extensively about the head versus heart debate going on in each party. The above data suggests that Democrats may be leaning toward a head vote in 2008 -- interested less in Clinton's vote for the 2002 use-of-force resolution against Iraq than picking the candidate they believe is best positioned to win the White House. If that dynamic holds up through January, it will be tough to beat Clinton.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 19, 2007; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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