While Democratic circles are buzzing with speculation that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois might jump into the race for the party's 2008 presidential nomination, little notice is given to the fact that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's stock has gone up the most in recent months.
In a Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national survey of registered voters last month, 34 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents supported Clinton and 20 percent said they backed Obama from a list including virtually every conceivable contender. Former Vice President Al Gore was at 11 percent, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards had 9 percent, and Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts each had 4 percent. Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin (who has since said he will not run), Govs. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa and retired Gen. Wesley Clark each had 2 percent or less.
The poll of 728 registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents was conducted Nov. 9-12 and had a 3.6-point error margin.
Clinton's support this time was statistically unchanged from three previous surveys over the last year, when she was at 31 or 32 percent. But if you take Gore, who is not likely to run, out of the mix, Clinton goes from 34 percent to 39 percent, with Obama at 21 percent and no other candidate gaining more than 2 points. For Clinton, that is 8 points better than in the June Cook/RT survey among the same set of contenders, and it is 7 points higher than she was at this point last December.
If both Gore and Obama are out of the mix, Clinton's support level goes up to 51 percent, 20 points higher than she was in June and 19 points higher than last December.
Clinton's biggest challenge has long been the question of electability. While quite controversial among Republicans and independents, Clinton's favorable ratings among Democrats generally run between 66 and 80 percent. The concern within the party has been whether she could win a general election.
To test the saliency of the electability question, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were asked this question in Cook/RT surveys in February, August and last month: "Thinking about Hillary Clinton, which of the following two statements comes closer to your opinion? If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, I am worried that she cannot win the election for president, or if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she'll have as good a chance as any Democratic nominee to be elected president." The answers were rotated each time the question was asked.
In February, 47 percent said Clinton would have as good a chance as any Democrat, while 46 percent expressed concern that she couldn't win a general election. In August, the numbers were again pretty evenly split again, with 49 percent expressing concern that she couldn't win a general and 46 percent believing she'd have as good a chance as any.
In the November survey, however, those who thought she'd have as good a chance as any climbed 14 points to 60 percent, and those worried that she couldn't win dropped 13 points to 36 percent. There was no significant difference between men and women or among those most likely to vote in a Democratic presidential primary. Among that group, 59 percent thought she would have as good a chance as any, while 37 percent worried that she couldn't win in November.
Obviously this is one just one poll, and that doesn't make a trend. Having said that, it could well be that before this midterm election, Democrats, having lost two consecutive presidential elections and lost House and Senate seats in two straight elections as well, were filled with self-doubt and probably not in much of a risk-taking mood. But having won majorities in the House, Senate and among governors last month, Democrats probably have a little more starch in their shorts, and that might play to her benefit.
At the same time, race might not be the obstacle for Obama that some would have thought. The full sample of 1,737 registered voters was asked: "As you may know, Barack Obama is a first-term, African-American senator from Illinois. If the Democratic Party nominated Barack Obama for president, regardless of how you personally might vote, how likely is it that among your friends, neighbors and relatives there might be some people who choose not to vote for Obama because he is African-American?"
Just 13 percent said it was either very likely or fairly likely that they knew someone who would not vote for Obama because of his race, 78 percent said it was only somewhat likely or not likely that they knew someone who would. Interestingly, 23 percent of African-Americans said they knew someone that wouldn't; only 11 percent of whites said that.
The full survey, which had an error margin of 2.4 points, showed Clinton gaining ground in a hypothetical general election race against Arizona Sen. John McCain, the likely front-runner for the GOP nomination. The poll showed McCain with 44 percent and Clinton with 42 percent. McCain led Clinton by 12 points in February, 9 points in April and 7 points in June.
In the most recent poll, McCain led Obama, 44 percent to 37 percent. This is the first time this pairing has been tested in the Cook/RT poll.