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The primary vs. general election fallacy

Recent history shows that winning a state in the primary season — no matter its importance on the map — doesn’t guarantee success in the general election. NBC's Mark Murray explains.
Clinton 2008
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., makes a campaign stop at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Wednesday, March 12, 2008, at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington. Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: NBC News

After 43 Democratic nominating contests, including Tuesday’s primary in Mississippi, Sen. Hillary Clinton now trails Sen. Barack Obama in both state victories and the number of pledged delegates won.

That’s unlikely to change between now and the last scheduled primary in June.

But Clinton and her campaign have seized on an argument, hoping to sway enough superdelegates over to her side.

They contend that because Clinton has won primaries in important battleground states like Ohio — and perhaps Pennsylvania next month — she is better positioned to win those states in the general election.

After her triumph last week in Ohio, the Clinton campaign issued talking points for its surrogates.

They included this statement: “She’s won in states that Democrats need if they are to succeed in November” — referring to states like Ohio, New Mexico and Florida. It's worth noting, however that neither Clinton nor Obama campaigned in the Sunshine State after the Democratic National Committee stripped it of its delegates for moving up its contest before Super Tuesday.

And on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who supports Clinton, said, “The traditional role of the superdelegates is to determine who's going to be our strongest candidate…She's clearly the strongest candidate in the states that Democrats must win to have a chance."

He continued, "Look, it's great that Barack Obama is doing wonderfully well in Wyoming and Utah and, and places like that, but there's no chance we're going to carry those states.”

Likewise, Obama’s campaign has pointed to his victories in states like Colorado, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin as proof of his ability to win in states that could be important battlegrounds in November.

But there’s just one fallacy to these dueling arguments that hasn’t received much attention: Recent history shows that winning a state in the primary season — no matter its importance on the map — doesn’t guarantee success in the general election.

In 2004, for example, John Kerry won early Democratic contests in Iowa, Arizona, and Missouri, but he fell short in all three states when pitted against George W. Bush.

In 1992, Bill Clinton captured primaries in Florida and Texas, but lost those states in the general election. And in 1984 — in a primary that has drawn parallels to the current Democratic race — Walter Mondale secured the Democratic nomination over Gary Hart in part by winning large industrial states like Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.

But in the end, he wound up winning just one state against Ronald Reagan: his home state of Minnesota.

The opposite also is true. There are numerous examples of candidates losing states during the primaries but then going on to win them in the general election. Bill Clinton, for instance, captured Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire in his 1992 contest against George H.W. Bush. But he lost all three in the primaries.

The reason for this primary-general election disconnect? It’s pretty simple, say political pollsters and analysts: The voters who turn out in a primary are very different from those who turn out in the general.

“I think it is dangerous to generalize from primary to general election,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

“A swing voter in the general election is a different person than a swing voter in a primary,” he adds, explaining that while Clinton might win in a state among white men ages 45 to 59 or that Obama might win independents, they are doing so only among those participating in that Democratic primary.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato put it another way on Tuesday, telling MSNBC-TV that about 40 million voters would participate in this year's Democratic and Republican nominating contests. That’s compared, he said, with more than 120 million who would likely vote in the general election.

Similarly, Rhodes Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Rhodes Cook Letter, notes that Clinton won 1.2 million votes in Ohio last week. By comparison, Bush won nearly 2.9 million votes in the state during 2004's general election.

“She is less than half of the way there in terms of what she needs to carry Ohio,” he says.

Of course, winning a state in the primaries does have its benefits when you get to the general election.

Eric Rademacher, who conducts the University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Poll, explains that the winning campaign has already proven it can energize a base of supporters in that state for the general. The burden for the loser — if he or she becomes the nominee — is to energize voters the campaign didn’t get the first time. 

What’s more, the primary winner can tap into the same organizing network that proved successful in the nominating contest. In Ohio, Rademacher says, Clinton effectively used the organization of Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who is supporting the New York senator. And if she wins the Democratic nomination, she can count on it once again.

But Rademacher adds, “Most Democratic and Republican voters will likely back the nominee, regardless of which candidate won the primary.” And in the battle for Ohio, he expects — once again — a tight race along party lines, with independents making the difference.

Indeed, a poll he conducted less than two weeks before Clinton's primary win showed Obama leading McCain in Ohio, 48-47 percent, and McCain beating Clinton there, 51-47 percent.

If she becomes the nominee, Clinton could very well win Ohio and perhaps Pennsylvania, too. Or if Obama wins the Democratic nod, he could win Colorado or Virginia.

But history shows that such wins probably won’t be because of earlier state primary victories.