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Thumbs Down? Opponent Dissatisfaction among Obama and Clinton Supporters

- March 14, 2008


As virtually any political campaign wears on, more and more sharp words get exchanged by the combatants and their handlers — a tendency exemplified last week by the sudden resignation of Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power, who had referred (off the record, she thought) to Hillary Clinton as a “monster,” and this week by the sudden resignation of Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro following her on-the-record remarks about Obama and race.

Some of this infighting is all in good political fun as campaigns go, for politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley put it. Even so, sooner or later all the attacks and counterattacks become likely to leave a residue of hard feelings, creating a situation in which the vanquished may turn thumbs down on the victor. Thus the issue repeatedly arises of whether divisive primaries undermine a candidate’s prospects in the general election — an issue on which there is some good political science research, as John Sides recently posted here.

New grist for the mill has been delivered, in the form of some data that Joost van Beek, a dedicated psephologist, recently forwarded to us at “The Monkey Cage.” Drawing on exit poll results archived at msnbc.com, Joost calculated what he called the “Bitterness Quotient” between Obama and Clinton supporters in the Democratic primaries that have been contested so far. I don’t like that name, because what’s being measured isn’t necessarily bitterness; for example, a Clinton supporter could be dissatisfied by an Obama victory simply because the voter likes Clinton more on the issues and harbors no hard feelings toward Obama. Still, Joost’s data are valuable, for they tap directly into dissatisfaction with the prospect that one’s disfavored candidate might become the Democratic standard-bearer.


Question wording: “No matter how you voted today, would you be satisfied with [Clinton/Obama as the nominee]?”

The response frequencies are shown above for the 27 states for which the data are available. These data are up-to-the-minute, for they include results from the Mississippi exit poll that was conducted just three days ago. Excluded are three states in which Democratic primaries have been held: Hawaii, where no exit poll was conducted; Michigan, where Clinton was the only candidate on the ballot; and New Hampshire, where an exit poll was conducted but the dissatisfaction question wasn’t asked. Each entry in the table above is simply the percentage of Obama or Clinton voters who answered “dissatisfied” when asked whether, “no matter how you voted today,” they would be satisfied or dissatisfied if the other candidate turned out to be the Democratic nominee.

Some observations:

* Overall, Obama’s supporters have expressed less dissatisfaction at the prospect of having Clinton at the top of the ticket than vice-versa. The reason could be that Clinton has run the more negative of the two campaigns, creating doubts in her supporters’ minds about Obama; for example, according to a Wednesday news release by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, in the hotly contested Ohio primary more than one-fifth of Clinton’s advertisements but less than five percent of Obama’s were negative.

* The Opponent Dissatisfaction Index has varied considerably from state to state, especially among the Clintonistas, for whom it has ranged all the way from 30% to 72%. For the Obamaniacs, the range has been narrower (29% to 58%).

* If you stare at these data long enough, you may begin to see some patterns. But a better approach is to run some statistical analyses. Having done so, I’ll note that Obama’s supporters in the South have been a bit more receptive than his supporters in the rest of the country to the prospect of having Clinton as the nominee. On the other side of the coin, Clinton’s southern supporters have been less receptive than those elsewhere to a possible Obama victory.

* Since Super Tuesday (February 5), Obama’s supporters have expressed greater dissatisfaction about a potential Clinton nomination than they were doing before then — again, presumably as a result of Clinton’s attacks on their favored candidate. For Clinton’s supporters, there has been little movement over time in their dissatisfaction with Obama’s possible nomination.

* Putting the effects of region and timing together reveals that since Super Tuesday a major South versus non-South gap has opened up in Obama supporters’ dissatisfaction with a potential Clinton nomination, whereas earlier there had been no such gap. For Clinton supporters, though, neither region, timing, nor the two together, help account for the state-to-state variability in expressions of dissatisfaction with an Obama candidacy,

In general, then, there has been no systematic increase in opponent dissatisfaction with the passage of time in this campaign. In the particular case of Obama’s supporters in the South (a large prooportion of whom are African Americans), though, dissatisfaction with the prospect of a Clinton victory has indeed grown.

Several primaries are currently scheduled, and the prospect of do-overs in Michigan and Florida remains. Will these patterns remain in force, will they become even clearer, or will they be supplanted by new trends as the long campaign slog continues? Stay tuned.

[A doffing of the chapeau to Joost van Beek]