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Is Hillary Clinton Electable?

"Whether it's fair or not fair, the fact of the matter is that my colleague from New York, Sen. Clinton, there are 50% of the American public that say they're not going to vote for her. I'm not saying anything that people don't know already. I don't necessarily like it, but those are the facts. We as a party certainly have to take that into consideration." -- Sen. Chris Dodd, Oct. 30 Democratic candidates' debate

PRINCETON, NJ -- Questions about Hillary Clinton's ability to win a general presidential election have followed her from the moment she announced her 2008 presidential election bid; but now that Democrats are poised to actually select their party's nominee, the questions have resurfaced with some intensity.

The issue is addressed most directly by national surveys asking voters whether they would be more likely to vote for Clinton or one of her Republican opponents in the November 2008 election. Out of eight such trial heats Gallup has conducted this year in which Clinton was paired against Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani, Clinton led on two, was statistically tied on four, and trailed on two.

Clinton has tended to perform even better in matchups with less prominent Republican candidates. For example, in Gallup's latest poll, conducted Dec. 14-16, 2007, Clinton ties Giuliani (49% for Clinton vs. 48% for Giuliani), but she leads Mike Huckabee by a nine-point margin (53% vs. 44%) and leads Mitt Romney by six points (52% vs. 46%).

Whether Clinton could win the 2008 general election would also depend on voter turnout. If equal proportions of Republicans and Democrats come out to vote, the results on Election Day should look very much like the national polls. Under that scenario, she is clearly capable of winning. However, if a much higher proportion of Republicans come out, that could tilt an otherwise close election against her.

Clinton's Impact on Turnout

Would Clinton's presence on the ballot next fall as the Democratic nominee for president trigger a Republican stampede to the polls? Recent Gallup data addressing this don't provide a clear answer.

One question on the new poll asks registered voters, directly, whether -- assuming circumstances arose that would make it difficult for them to get to the polls -- they would make a greater effort to vote next fall if Clinton or, alternatively, Barack Obama were the Democratic nominee for president.

Most voters say they would make the same effort regardless. Among the rest, twice as many say they would make a greater effort to vote if Clinton were the nominee than if it were Obama, 16% vs. 7%. However, given the responses by party ID, the possible effect on the election outcome appears to be nil. With Clinton as the nominee, Democrats are about as likely to be energized to get to the polls (presumably to support her) as Republicans are (presumably to support her opponent).

The Fear Factor

In contrast to this finding, a question included in the November and December Gallup Panel surveys finds a majority of Republicans alarmed by the prospect of a Clinton presidency, and insufficient positive sentiment among Democrats to neutralize Republicans' alarm.

Asked whether they would be "excited," "pleased," "disappointed," or "afraid" if each of various candidates became president, more than half of Republicans (62%) say they would be afraid if Clinton were elected. On the flip side, barely half as many Democrats (35%) say they would be excited by this outcome.

No other candidate from either party generates as much cross-party fear as Clinton does among Republicans. The closest are John Edwards with 31%, Obama with 30%, and Giuliani with 29%.

Because the percentage of Republicans who would be fearful about a Clinton presidency is higher than the percentage of Democrats who would be excited, there may be greater potential for a surge of Republican turnout against Clinton than a surge of Democratic turnout in support of her. Still, Clinton does generate more excitement from within her own party than does any other leading Republican or Democrat.

The same patterns are seen a bit less starkly with a question from the Dec. 14-16 USA Today/Gallup poll that asks Americans to say what kind of president each candidate would make: "great," "good," "average," "poor," or "terrible."

Of the eight candidates rated, Clinton generates the most extremely negative reactions from members of the opposing party: 43% of Republicans say she would be terrible, compared with only 20% of Republicans saying this of Edwards and 13% of Democrats saying this of Thompson.

In terms of being a "great" president, Clinton also generates the most positives from members of her own party -- substantially more than her major challengers for the Democratic nomination and any of the leading Republican candidates.

Bottom Line

Taking the results of trial-heat general election questions at face value, Clinton looks as electable as anyone running for president today, if not more so. She appeared particularly strong vis-à-vis the Republicans in November, beating Giuliani and other Republican candidates by significant margins. In more recent polling, she does no worse than tie Giuliani. Additional assurances about her electability can be found in Gallup data showing that while Republicans may be more motivated to get out and vote on Election Day with Clinton -- rather than Obama -- on the ticket, Democrats are as well, thus nullifying any likely effect on the outcome.

Still, the 62% of Republicans who are fearful of a Clinton presidency is a startling figure. Without an equal proportion of Democrats counterbalancing that somehow, there is at least the potential for a substantial Republican effort in the general election to keep Clinton out of office, whether that means unprecedented levels of donations, volunteer work, or turnout on Election Day.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,011 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 14-16, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 399 Republicans or Republican leaners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 513 Democrats or Democratic leaners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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