In The New York Times/CBS poll of Dec. 11, Hillary was overwhelmingly rated as the most likely of the Democratic candidates to defeat the Republicans in the 2008 general election.
Asked, regardless of how they were voting, which candidate was most likely to defeat the GOP, 63 percent of Democratic primary voters said Hillary Clinton was the most likely to win in November, while only 14 percent chose Obama and 10 percent selected Edwards.
Good news for Hillary? Yes, for now. But it could indicate a potential for disaster should she stumble in the early primaries and caucuses.
A lot of voters are backing Hillary because they see her as a winner and they are hungry to throw the Republicans out of the White House. When Mrs. Clinton touts her experience (and Mr. Clinton does it for her), the voters don’t necessarily hear government experience. A lot focus on her campaign experience instead.
The team that survived Gennifer Flowers and the draft and the Contract With America and Monica and carpet-bagging in New York state can, presumably, weather any storm. Hillary has a carefully cultivated impression of invincibility that serves as one of her principal attractions to Democratic primary voters.
But what will happen if she loses in Iowa or in New Hampshire?
The latest average of the past five polls in Iowa, compiled by www.realclearpolitics.com, shows Obama in the lead, 30-26. If the Illinois senator wins in Iowa, it could send Hillary to defeat in New Hampshire, where her lead in the past five polls averaged only 3 points.
Since so much of her vote is based on her presumed ability to win elections, her loss of the winner image might set in motion a domino effect of cascading defeats in the primaries far more dramatic than is typical in presidential elections. The more her current vote share is based on the presumption of invincibility, the more a defeat — or several in a row — could hurt.
Those who live by their reputation for winning also can die from losing.
Much of Hillary’s presumed superiority to Obama in the ability to beat a Republican candidate stems from a politically correct racism. Democratic primary voters — while denying any prejudice themselves, of course — may worry about whether an African-American can win a national election.
They may be reluctant to try to break the color barrier when a continuation of Republican rule would ensue from failure. But an Obama win in lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire could dispel this lingering doubt and boost his chances disproportionately.
For her part, defeats in the early going could also undermine Hillary’s reputation for strength, a key asset for any woman seeking public office. If she shows weakness at the ballot box, it could translate into a perception of weakness in her persona, which might cost her even more votes in the subsequent primaries.
Already, Hillary is flirting with disaster by maintaining so heavy a reliance on her husband. The more a wife needs her husband to boost her to victory or to handle her opponents, the more voters will impute weakness to her and wonder if she can stand alone as president.
Of course, Hillary has a real potential for a comeback. Bill’s characterization of an Obama victory as a “roll of the dice” may not do a lot to boost his wife’s chances now, when people expect Hillary to win. But if Obama prevails in the first few primaries, he will acquire a place in the sun at the cost of being in the spotlight.
There, his inexperience will be widely debated and the ensuing dialogue might drive voters back to Hillary. It is hard to believe that voters, on sober second thought, would abandon Hillary and vote for a man whom they had never heard of until very recently.
Unless they finally see through Hillary, of course.