WHY COMPETITION MATTERS


What is the takeaway from Hillary Clinton’s “victory” in Florida yesterday? There are (at least) two ways to look at it.

The first is that, generally speaking, she is preferred by Democrats by a roughly 3-to-2-to-1 margin over Barack Obama and John Edwards, respectively. That is, she is the default choice of the party, the favored if not favorite candidate in a name ID matchup. The alternative interpretation is this: The more people get to know both her and Obama, the worse she does and the better Obama does.

Check the math: Yesterday, in Florida, Clinton “won” by 17 points a non-competitive contest--in the literal sense that they didn’t compete, not in the sense that it was a blowout, though it was; that margin is eerily similar to her 16-point “victory” in the other non-competitive battle in Michigan. Now compare those results with her margins in the other four, truly competitive primaries and caucuses: Iowa, -8; New Hampshire, +3; Nevada, +6, and South Carolina, -27. If we computed a Real Clear Politics-style average of those four competitive races (and without weighting for the South Carolina vote, which was Obama’s biggest win in the largest turnout state among the four), Clinton’s average margin in the four competitive states is -6.5 points. So, when they run against each other, it’s Obama by a half dozen; but when they don’t she wins by about 16. That’s a 22-point swing. (N.B.: You can bet Mark Penn would be releasing memos of this sort if the situations were reversed.)

Don't these results tell us something more than the fact that Florida was, as Dana Milbank says, "much ado about nothing" in purely delegates-won terms? Yes, they tell us that when Clinton and Obama face off head-to-head, she performs worse--much worse. That's not nothing; that's something.

--Tom Schaller

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