Is Obama The Strongest Democrat (as Silver Suggests)?

Is Nate Silver right? Is Obama the strongest candidate Democrats can put forward in 2012?  A student forwarded me this New York Times’ column by Silver in which he takes issue with my suggestion in this widely-circulated post  that Hillary Clinton might in fact be a stronger candidate for Democrats.  (Interestingly, Silver studiously refrains from actually mentioning Voldemort’s …. Er ….Hillary’s name until very late in the post, and then not in the context of her actually  challenging Obama.  Instead he speaks of unnamed Democrats! )

Silver pushes back on my premise, arguing instead that “The evidence, if anything points in the opposite direction: Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, and probably gives Democrats a better chance of maintaining the White House than another Democrat [Voldemort?] would.”  As evidence, Silver cites three factors:

1.First, Obama’s personal favorability ratings, at about 50%, are high relative to his job approval ratings which have sunk to 40%. He suggests that because voters like Obama personally, they may be more inclined to vote for him.

2. Second, Obama’s low approval ratings are higher than they should be given voters’ generally pessimistic view regarding the state of the nation.  Conclusion? See point one.

3. Third, there’s no reason to think any other Democrat would be able to “shed Mr. Obama’s liabilities on the economy.” Moreover, his policy views track very closely to the “typical” Democrat in Congress.  So, even if another Democrat ran, “the message would be mostly the same – but delivered by a Democrat who was probably no more effective than Mr. Obama, and who would lack the aesthetic and tactical advantages of being an incumbent president”.

Silver adds a final thought: that if Obama voluntarily stepped down he would be viewed as a “quitter” and – citing the historical examples of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 – there’s no reason to expect that his replacement would do any better.

Silver makes an interesting argument, but in the end I am not yet persuaded that he is right. To begin, as I have discussed repeatedly at this site, political science forecast models based on the “fundamentals”: – war casualties, growth in disposal income, changes in GDP – leave little room for the impact of candidate “favorability” ratings on electoral outcomes.  This actually is consistent with Silver’s third point, if not his first two – that any Democrat will be hobbled by the same conditions that, as of now, put Obama’s reelection in doubt. However, it is possible that in a very close race – and right now several of the forecast models suggest 2012 will be such a race – a candidate’s favorability ratings might matter at the margins. Rather than assume that Obama’s comparatively high favorability rating make him the de facto strongest candidate, however, we should see if any other  Democrats are viewed even more favorably?  Thinking, thinking….why yes!  Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have been consistently in the mid-60% range, significantly higher than Obama’s, dating back to the end of 2009 (as have her approval ratings).  Here’s a Gallup poll comparison from last March.

Note in particular her support among independents –  a key voting bloc that Obama won in 2008, but which Democrats lost in the 2010 midterms, as well as with Republicans.  Indeed, it is these groups that give her the advantage over Obama;  they have roughly equal favorability ratings among Democrats.

To be sure, these high favorability numbers will likely drop if she announces her candidacy – but by how much?  That’s an empirical question.

Keep in mind that although current polling typically has Hillary with a higher favorability rating than Obama, that was not the case in 2007-08, however; then her favorability ratings were consistently 5-10% below Obama’s.


However, even in the depths of the 2008 nomination fight, Clinton’s favorability ratings hovered near 50%, about even with her unfavorability ratings, in the Gallup poll.  In the CNN polls of registered voters during the 2008 nomination battle she retained even more impressive favorability/unfavorability ratings.

So, assuming candidate favorability comes into play at the margins in a close 2012 election – a big assumption – the question we need to ask is whether Clinton’s current advantage in favorability (and approval ratings) over Obama will be sustained, or will it revert to its 2008 component, or will it adjust somewhere in between? Interestingly, in this earlier post Silver suggests a potential answer: looking at the last three presidential elections, he finds a statistically significant if not substantively huge correlation between candidates’ favorability ratings in the six months before the nomination process officially kicks off in Iowa and those candidates’ favorability ratings during the actual post-Iowa primary season.  That is, early favorability ratings help predict later ones, up to a point.  If Silver is right, Hillary’s current advantage over Obama in favorability ratings may continue through the primary season.  Of course, there are all sorts of caveats to this analysis. In particular, should we use favorability ratings of someone who is not a declared candidate as a starting point?   And given the not exactly robust correlation between early and late favorability ratings, is the current difference between Clinton and Obama even substantively meaningful?

I confess I don’t know the answer to those questions.  But without those answers, I cannot, as yet, accept Silver’s argument that Obama is likely to be the strongest Democratic candidate; an equally valid case can be made that Clinton will run stronger.  Interestingly, the biggest advantage Clinton is likely to have is precisely the one that Silver cites in Obama’s favor, namely, she would lack the aesthetic and tactical DISadvantages of being an incumbent president!  In the end, Obama must run on his record.  Clinton can run on the promise of hope and change.  In a close election, that might be enough to win.

(NOTE: I’m writing a separate post on Silver’s second point that Obama’s approval ratings are outperforming the economy, so will postpone discussion of that.)


  1. I did feel Mr. Silver’s piece was weak. He made the case for Obama being strong based almost entirely, as I read it, on his Personal Approval Ratings and then failed to mention A) Hillary as his primary Primary Challenger — even after linking to your original Post mentioning her, Matthew — and B) her high Personal and Job Approval Ratings.

    I do get the sense, first with Rebecca Traister’s earlier write-up and now with Mr. Silver’s, that there’s something of a concerted effort underway to dampen down any excitement that might be growing around Obama facing a challenger. And if it’s hitting the level of the NY Times, twice in two weeks, at least, then the Primary Challenger din must be deafening.

  2. Kicks – It’s hard to tell whether these pieces reflect a “concerted effort” driven by the New York Times editorial slant. it may simply be the writers’ best assessment based on the evidence. Silver, of course, freely admits that he is an Obama supporter and I agree that this particular column was not one of his strongest. Traister, on the other hand, says she was initially a Clinton booster. More generally, while I’m not naive enough to think editorial pressures don’t creep into decisions regarding what to print (that is especially the risk when you are paid for your opinions) I prefer to judge these arguments on their merits – and not on who makes the argument. Otherwise this site risks degenerating into just another opinion echo chamber.

  3. I should clarify. I didn’t mean to suggest there was any sort of slant or effort by the NY Times itself (though, having said that, I’m still haunted by their shockingly poor performance in vetting Obama in 2008. But I digress … ).

    What I meant to suggest — with obvious inelegance — was that if the NY Times is running with stories like this, then they’re obviously catching a lot of chatter in the circles their Reporters run. The same deafening chatter I’m hearing now on both Coasts (I move between LA and NY) If the grand poo-bahs at the Times are deciding this news is fit to print — or, in the two cases we mention (Traister and Silver), half-heartedly shoot down –, the chatter must be worrying someone.

    That was the point I was trying to make.

    And I can’t thank you enough, Matthew, for the meticulous way you back up your arguments or assertions or general ramblings. This sweet spot of clarity in an often grating political world driven by uninformed opinions and myopic blather is truly an oasis of facts and figures and historical context. The thoughtful way you either support or refute a point is all very much appreciated. This site is anything but an “opinion echo chamber”.

  4. In her book Big Girls Don’t Cry (2010), Traister says she was for Edwards until he quit, then found it hard to choose between Obama and Clinton. She tells a dramatic story of choosing Clinton at the last moment in a Brooklyn voting booth on Super Tuesday.

  5. These are approval ratings of the job Clinton is doing now, correct?

    Are there any polls pitting Clinton and Obama head-to-head, or Clinton against the Republican field?

  6. Matt,

    If you mean the favorability ratings, yes, those surveys are conducted while Clinton is Secretary of State. The approval ratings, on the other hand, go back to 2007. As for head-to-head matchups, in my initial “Run, Hillary, Run” post on August 4 that started all this, I included a survey of Democratic voters (including leaners) from September 2010 that showed they preferred Obama over Clinton by 52-37, with 10% undecided. If those numbers are the same today, it indicates Clinton will have an uphill battle in the primaries. But, of course, that was almost a year ago. My argument, of course, is predicated on the idea that she will do better in the general election. I have not seen any head-to-head matchups between Clinton and any Republicans. I’ll see if I can dig some up.

  7. Kicks – I think the fact that opinion columnists and the Silvers of the media are still responding to my initial post from August 4 indicates that the story has legs. Why it remains newsworthy, almost three weeks after the initial post, is an interesting question. I think it is a function of the growing signs that Obama is in for a tough reelection fight, which leads inevitably to the question of whether anyone could do better which leads to Clinton. In that sense, it is a legitimate and increasingly relevant story. To what degree the media is also hearing this from other sources I can’t say.

    If this site is different, I hope it is in part because we have a robust, informed clash of often competing ideas and opinions. But I also want readers who don’t feel they know as much about presidential politics to feel comfortable coming here to get questions answered. So far (knock on wood) we’ve managed to retain some civility even as the readership continues to grow.

  8. Interesting. That, perhaps, puts her NYT story in a slightly different light.

  9. I remember a 2008 Salon article where Traister made a very brief mention of supporting Hillary — really more like half a sentence or something, I think — and then spent the rest of the piece chastising those still reluctant to Obama to “get over it” and support him.

    Her recent NY Times piece was, in my view, more of the same, all of which raises questions — questions now answered after learning about her initial Edwards support — about the depth of her support for Hillary.

    Interesting, nonetheless.

    And, yes, that this topic of conversation still has legs three weeks after your Run, Hillary, Run post is indicative of — and these are my words, obviously — a growing, unapologetic dissatisfaction with Obama with some Democrats and a sincere willingness to consider viable alternatives.

    Who said August was a slow news month?

  10. I can’t see how Obama stepping down has anything to do with Hillary’s chances (or how Truman and LBJ screwed it up for Stevenson and Humphrey, respectively—completely different situations). Besides, even if Hillary does not have a magic wand for the economy (though her husband might be the next best thing), it strikes me that the quality most disappointing about Obama is the very quality that Hillary possess in spades: a readiness to fight for what she believes. That said, if Obama does not step down (which is extremely unlikely—unless this gets even worse), the old narrative of her being an ambitious opportunist could reemerge as a fatal weakness.

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