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The Movement and the Maverick

A Barack Obama-John McCain race would probably accelerate the process of scrambling the parties' historic class alignment.
/ Source: National Journal

After 's in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, questions about how he might match up in a general election against seem not only more relevant but also more urgent.

could still mount a comeback in the Democratic presidential race by capturing both Texas and Ohio on March 4. But the magnitude of Obama's Wisconsin victory left the impression of a cresting wave that is overwhelming her defenses. In Wisconsin, Obama again dominated among the groups where he has been strong (such as young people), but he also equaled Clinton in most of her strongholds (most notably, among downscale whites).

So while it may be undeniably premature, it was nonetheless understandable that in Wisconsin's aftermath, attention in both parties immediately turned toward the prospect of a campaign between McCain and Obama.

And who are we to resist the impulse to jump that gun?

Obama and McCain would bring some comparable strengths to a general election. Each has attracted more independents than any other candidate in his party. And both Obama and McCain have connected more than their rivals with the hunger for national reconciliation that is emerging after President Bush's relentlessly polarizing tenure. (They approach the challenge with distinct rhetorical strategies, however, and those differences would grow more apparent as the campaign proceeds.) Even on some hot-button issues -- immigration, greenhouse gases -- the two overlap; though, again, disagreements would inevitably sharpen in a campaign between them.

Iraq, age, change and experience
Even with these areas of convergence, a race between Obama and McCain would mostly be defined by shearing contrast: the movement against the maverick. Iraq presents the greatest (and gravest) difference. McCain has identified with the war more unreservedly than any national leader besides Bush; Obama can claim to have opposed it from the outset and promises to quickly begin extricating American troops. No voter could ask for a clearer choice on how to proceed.

An Obama-McCain race would probably accelerate the process, under way since the 1960s, of scrambling the parties' historic class alignment. Obama's strong support from affluent and college-educated voters in the primaries demonstrates his opportunity to convert Republican-leaning upper-income voters (especially men) now disaffected from President Bush. But Obama's struggle during the primaries with working-class white women suggests an opening for McCain to court those downscale "waitress moms" with the same security issues that drew many of them to Bush in 2004. The first trend should boost Obama in Virginia and Colorado (two affluent states atop Democratic target lists); the second should help McCain defend Ohio and besiege Pennsylvania.

Against McCain, who would be the oldest newly elected president ever, Obama should generate a big margin and elevated turnout among young people, who have overwhelmingly preferred him over Clinton during the primary. Black turnout should soar, too. But McCain might make inroads among Latinos, who have generally resisted Obama. As the nominee, Obama might benefit from a more enthusiastic base, especially since Republicans were counting on Clinton to energize conservatives restive about McCain.

Finally, an Obama-McCain race would establish a personal contrast that looks like the Democratic primary on steroids: the starkest imaginable choice between change and experience. The opportunity for Democrats is that the colossal differences between the two men -- in age (25 years), style, and Washington experience -- could underscore Obama's change message in a year when voters want a new direction. The risk to Democrats is that McCain could focus the campaign on a single question: whether voters can trust Obama as commander-in-chief.

Polls today consistently show Obama performing slightly better than Clinton against McCain. But the operative word is today: Obama's advantages might evaporate if Republicans can undermine his "post-partisan" positioning or disqualify him as commander-in-chief.

That's the gamble Obama represents for Democrats: His upside potential as a nominee (or a president) seems higher than Clinton's, but his downside risk seems greater. For better or worse, Democrats pretty much know what they are getting if they nominate Hillary Clinton. As nominee, or president, Barack Obama might fall anywhere between John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. The first would likely beat John McCain. The second would not.