Yesterday, in response to Senator Obama's comments about Clinton's high unfavorables, Senator Clinton's campaign was clearly peeved and fired off this missive in response:
"It sounds like Karl Rove is writing Senator Obama's talking points," said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer. "The reality is that as the campaign now gets under way, Senator Clinton's ratings are improving because Americans are seeing that she has the strength and experience to deliver change."
Wow--this is certainly a response on par with Obama's "Bush-Cheney light" comment three weeks ago. Considering how this is far more aggressive than the Clinton campaign usually reacts to Obama's comments, it certainly makes one wonder if Obama really hit a nerve with the Clinton campaign when he talked about Clinton's unfavorables. This is an issue that other Democrats are starting to discuss as well, even though they tend to do so off the record and with less than specific figures on whether or not Clinton actually would pose a coattail problem from down ticket Democrats. If they start comparing Democrats who openly discuss this issue to Karl Rove, it becomes pretty clear that they do not like the issue discussed in public, and will react harshly against any Democrat who goes on record saying it could pose a problem for Clinton.
The main issue at stake here, I think, is that Hillary Clinton is actually winning the electability issue right now. Considering the regular importance of electability to the Democratic primary, this must be one of the main reasons why she is ahead in national and early state polls. From a CBS poll released today (PDF):
Voters see Obama as less electable than Clinton. 46% think he could win if he is the Democratic nominee, while 62% think Clinton could win. 76% of Democratic primary voters think Clinton can win, as do 54% for Obama.
CAN THEY WIN? (Among registered voters)
Clinton: Yes 62%--29% No
Obama: Yes 46%--39% No
OK, now this all makes a lot more sense. Of course Obama is going to attack Clinton's high unfavorables, because he is losing the crucial electability issue among the Democratic primary electorate by a whopping 22%. Of course the Clinton campaign is going to respond with real force, because her advantage on this issue is one of the keys to maintaining her advantage in the campaign. Right now, by a gaping margin of 76%-54%, Democrats think Clinton is much more electable than Obama. In 2004, electability was the main concern for 35-40% of the Democratic primary electorate, meaning that a 22% edge on electability would translate into at least an 8-10% advantage in polls (possibly more). While there is no available evidence on how much of a role electability is playing in Democratic choices this cycle, if there was an 8-10% swing away from Clinton and in Obama's favor in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally, he would become the frontrunner overnight, as he would lead in money, both early states, and be in a virtual tie nationally.
Now, due to the lack of information on how much electability is on the mind of the Democratic primary electorate in 2007-2008, I am going to avoid making any definite statements as to how much this issue is playing in the campaign. However, given Clinton's current advantage on the issue despite her slightly lower performance than Obama against leading Republicans in head-to-head matchups, I think it is clear why this issue could turn into a huge source of contention among leading campaigns during the fall. It is a fairly obvious point of attack for the Obama campaign, and an obvious point where the Clinton campaign needs to mount a vigorous defense. The nomination campaign could potentially turn on an issue like this, so expect more fireworks down this avenue in the future.