WASHINGTON — She says she's the best Democratic presidential candidate to take on John McCain and defeat him in crucial swing states. He contends that he's a political game-changer, capable of turning some red Republican states Democrat blue.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have dueling visions of what the November electoral map would look like if they are their party's nominee.
Clinton — whose campaign is behind on delegates and superdelegates and low on cash — has been trying to convince the Democratic Party establishment that she would be a better nominee than Obama because she's won primaries in big swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida, which likely will be battlegrounds in the fall.
Obama, who would be the nation's first major-party African-American presidential nominee, says his presence in the race would shake up the traditional red-state, blue-state landscape and give Democrats a solid chance in Republican-leaning states such as Virginia, Iowa, Colorado and perhaps North Carolina.
Whose vision is right? Political analysts give credence to and cast doubt on both scenarios.
Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute, said that Clinton can cite recent polls to bolster her argument as to why she should be the nominee. A Quinnipiac survey earlier this month showed Clinton leading McCain in Florida (49 to 41 percent), Ohio (48 to 38 percent) and Pennsylvania (51 to 37 percent).
The same survey showed Obama leading McCain in Pennsylvania (47 percent to 38 percent), but in a statistical dead heat with him in Ohio and Florida.
"There's evidence to buttress her case. She seems to be strong in these states," Brown said. "But if she doesn't win the nomination, it doesn't matter."
Clinton's swing-state strength claim has some holes, though, political experts say. She doesn't take into account that Obama won a number of swing states in the primaries: Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Then, too, Obama losing to Clinton in a Democratic primary isn't the same as Obama facing off against a Republican in November; Democrats who preferred Clinton may well come home to vote for their party's nominee against McCain.
Clinton also excludes the fact that she would be facing a general electorate that's more skeptical of her and her policies. A USA Today/Gallup Poll earlier this month found that 52 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of her, 45 percent had an unfavorable opinion and 3 percent hadn't made up their minds.
"She seems to forget that half the country doesn't think she's honest; half the country doesn't like her," said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Iowa's Drake University. "It's fair to say that if she's the nominee, she starts about 170 electoral votes in the hole because there goes the South."
Brown and other polling experts warn that Clinton shouldn't build her case entirely on surveys, stipulating that they're snapshots in time that will surely shift once a Democratic nominee is finally named.
For example, a University of New Hampshire poll released earlier this month showed McCain leading both Clinton and Obama. Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor, said that won't hold once the Democrats choose a candidate.
"Yes, you've got John McCain and an allegiance thing among New Hampshire voters, but it's not a Republican Party allegiance," Scala said. "I don't buy that there's a clear correlation between (primary results and the general election). Obama has the time to pivot and adapt. The advantage that Obama has is the country really, really wants change."
But Obama still has to win over some portion of working-class white Democrats, who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio and have indicated in several polls that they could gravitate toward McCain in November.
However, Republican Party troubles — underscored this week when a Democrat won a House of Representatives seat in Mississippi that has long been held by Republicans — may be dire enough to persuade white-working class voters to pull the lever for Obama in key states come November.
"What we know is a Democrat will have an enormous advantage. The economy, the war in Iraq, opposition to George W. Bush gives the Democrat an enormous advantage in the playing field," Brown said. "Obama can ride that."
As for Obama's swing-state claim, there's no doubt that his candidacy has produced a surge in voter participation among African-Americans and younger white upper-income adults. But it's unclear whether that will translate into enough votes to help him in key swing states and to flip closely contested Republican states into the Democratic column.
Merle Black, a political science professor at Atlanta's Emory University, said that Obama faces multiple obstacles — including racial attitudes among white voters and his difficulty in connecting with white-working class voters for whatever reason.
"I think Colorado and New Mexico are possibilities right now, but I think the (electoral) map would look a whole lot like the Bush-Kerry 2004 map," said Black. "I don't see anything (for Obama) in the Deep South. (But) Obama would have a better chance of carrying Virginia than Hillary would."
Polling info: The USA Today/Gallup poll was conducted May 1-3, 2008 among 1,019 adults nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The Quinnipiac University poll was conducted April 23-29 among 1,411 Florida voters, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.6 percentage points; among 1,127 Ohio voters with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points; and among 1,494 Pennsylvania voters, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points.
The University of New Hampshire Granite State Poll was conducted from April 25-30, with 500 New Hampshire adults, including a sub-sample of 456 likely November voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.