The electability illusion

In Iowa, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are claiming to be the more "electable" Democrat in a general election. But a mash-up of polls at RealClearPolitics suggests that it makes little difference who gets nominated. RCP posts averages of the six most recent polls in each possible head-to-head contest (Clinton vs. Guiliani, Obama vs. Romney, etc.). As of today, Clinton beats Rudy Guiliani by 2.7 points, and Obama beats him by 2.0 points. If the nominee is Mitt Romney, then Clinton wins by 10.0 points and Obama wins by 10.5 points. Against Fred Thompson, it’s Clinton by 7.2 points and Obama by 8.7 points. And against John McCain, Clinton is ahead by 2.0 points and Obama wins by 3.6 points.

In fact, none of the candidates (in either party) move up or down much when tested against different opponents. If Clinton and Obama seem to do better against Romney than other Republicans, it’s only because the undecided vote goes up on those match-ups; neither Democrat cracks 50 percent against anyone. The only significant differences I can find among all 12 match-ups is that John Edwards seems more electable than Clinton if the opponent is Romney (beating him by 15 points rather than 10 points) and that Giuliani seems more electable than Romney if the opponent is Edwards (tying him rather than losing by 15 points).

The upshot is that party divisions in presidential politics may be so deep that the names on the ballot are of little consequence.

UPDATE: Zogby has released new polls today indicating that Obama and Edwards would beat the leading Republican candidates but that Clinton would lose to them. But these could be outlier polls, and the results may be skewed a bit by the unusually high numbers of undecided voters. (No candidate gets more than 47 percent in any of Zogby’s 16 different match-ups.)