Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Which of Hillary's 2008 weaknesses are most likely to reemerge in 2016? Part I: The "CHANGE" Factor

"Change" candidates aren't always successful at seeking their party's nomination, but that was not the case in 2008. If Clinton wasn't the change candidate then, how can she be in 2016? Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Richard Drew/Pool

In 2008, the Clinton juggernaut collapsed before a comparatively unknown, three-year Senator from Illinios, in part because the big-wigs in Hillaryland failed to anticipate the degree to which members of their own party wanted a candidate who represented that exhausted political buzzword: "change."

It's not that Mark Penn, Patti Solis Doyle, Howard Wolfson, and other 2008 Clinton campaign verterans were idiots - they knew something about how to run a political campaign, and were certainly well aware that after 2.5 years of a historically unpopular President George W. Bush, Americans at the national level would be craving change. But what were the odds that Democrats would turn those same desires against their own darling Clinton? After all, it was the Clinton family that ushered the Democrats out of the political wilderness of the 1980s. It was the Clintons who became the first Democrats to win two presidential terms since FDR. It was the Clintons that presided over the greatest peacetime economic expansion in history.

Yet still, in the Winter and Spring of 2008, Democrats simply weren't buying what the Clintons were selling anymore; this wasn't an "experience" election, and Hillary was NOT the candidate of change.

Whether through miscalculation on her campaign's part, or simply her opponent's own strength, Clinton performed very, very poorly among voters in her party who said they wanted a candidate that could best "bring about change," which, unfortunately for Hillary, wound up being the majority of the Democratic electorate that year.

Flash forward five years, and Hillary Clinton again leads the primary, though this time sweeping nearly every subset of every subgroup of potential Democratic primary voters. Which begs the question: is 2016 the next 2008? Will the next Democratic Presidential primary, or even the next general election, feature a "change" component to the extent seen in 2008? It's hard to say, and there are some obvious differences.

In 2016, it will be Hillary's party that has dominated the White House for 8 years, which could end up a net negative OR positive for her campaign, depending on how Americans continue to perceive the job President Barack Obama is doing (which, as of today, isn't too well).

Yet if the national mood is such that a party of Obama-Democrats jump on the "change" bandwagon once more, Hillary Clinton has a major soft spot for opponents to target, especially if 2008 is any guide.

To understand the extend of Hillary's potential weakness with this group of voters, consider the chart below that documents the make-up of the 2008 Democratic primary electorate based on what voters identified as the "top candidate quality" to exit pollsters, as well as how proponents of each candidate quality split their vote between Clinton and Obama:

Data is compiled from CNN's state-by-state exit polling. I compiled the national data from CNN state exit polling. That process can be found here.

The difference in Obama and Clinton's vote margins among people who identified the ability to "bring about change" as the most important candidate quality, and those who did not, is stark. Obama carried the "change" voters by a landslide 41 points (68-27%), while Hillary carried the rest (voters who said experience, electability, or empathy for others was the most important candidate quality) by an identical 41 points, or 63-22%.

There were only two states where Hillary won among voters that identified "change" as the most important candidate quality, and that was Arkansas and West Virginia, states she carried overall with over 60% of the vote. Obama did not carry voters that identified "experience" as the top candidate quality in any state where exit polling was conducted.

Unfortunately, 2016 primary polling is somewhat limited at this early stage of the process, and the few pollsters who have waded into the field have not included the question of candidate qualities in their cross tabs. But from a 2008 exit polling perspective, it's one area that stands to be Hillary Clinton's greatest potential weakness.

And it isn't difficult to imagine why.  A two-term First Lady of Arkansas, two-term First Lady of the United States, two-term U.S. Senator, close runner-up to the Democratic nomination for President, and four-year Secretary of State obviously possess a lot of qualities anyone seeking the Presidency would long for. But positioning herself as the change candidate shouldn't be any easier than it was four years, and it didn't go too well back then.

As noted above, Clinton has major leads against all possible contenders among virtually every Democratic subgroup in 2016 polling at this point, and likely leads among Democrats seeking the next "change" candidate. That fact could change fast, however, if grassroots rockstars like Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Howard Dean throw themselves in the running, if 2008 exit polling is any guide.

Besides, if the "change" factor doesn't trip Hillary up, there's a decent shot the "youth vote" could . . .

Part II - The Age Factor is coming soon!

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