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Maybe Al Gore Was Right

- February 5, 2008

By all accounts, the big MO seems to be pushing Barack and knocking Hillary off her stride. But is it Hillary? Or, is it Bill? In a recent Pew Study, the proportion of the electorate that dislikes the idea of Bill Clinton being “back in the White House” increased from 34% to 41% between October 2007 and February 2008. Although the proportion of registered Democrats who disliked the idea of Bill Clinton returning only increased from 10% to 12%, the proportion of independents who felt this way increased from 35% to 45%. Overall, just 36% of independents think that returning Bill Clinton to the White House is a good idea. This helps to explain why Senator Obama complained during the South Carolina debate that “I can’t tell who I am running against.” And, as he elaborated the next day on Good Morning America, “We’ve got a formidable opponent — actually two formidable opponents at this point, between Senator Clinton and President Clinton.”

Voters’ views about Bill Clinton may be consequential for the outcome of the California primary. Democrats have allowed independents to vote in their primary, but Republicans have not. Independent voters who want to earn an “I Voted” sticker thus will have to vote in the Democratic primary, making this the first primary of the year in which all of the independents will be steered into the Democratic primary. That so many of these independents dislike the idea of a third act for Bill does not bode well for Hillary.

The Clintons of course are a poll-savvy family. (Recall that the Clintons in office allowed polls (here) to drive their vacation spot and their choice of a family pet; alas, Lee, Bill got a dog, not a cat.) They surely understand that Bill Clinton may be damaging his wife’s campaign.

So, why doesn’t the Hillary Clinton campaign pull a page out of the Gore campaign’s play book and ignore Bill? After all, this strategy won Gore the nomination in 2000 and–were it not for a crazy ballot (see Henry Brady’s study of the butterfly ballot)–the general election. Quite simply, Bill Clinton seems to think that this race is as much about him as it is about his wife. As Dana Milibank reported (here), he can’t answer questions on the campaign trail without lapsing into the first person: “My position on that is simple. . . . When I was in law school. . . . When I was president. . . . When I was governor of Arkansas. . . . When I started this school’s program. . . . I made the governor of South Carolina secretary of education. . . . I got a Mercury mini-SUV.”

The press also seems to think that this race is about Bill. A recent report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that last week, Bill Clinton was the third most prominent “candidate.” No wonder, Governor Huckabee exclaimed during the Reagan Library Republican debate (here) “There’s another guy who would like a say down here on the far right of the stage.”

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[Hat tip to Mark Spindel for the media exposure figure.]