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Eye On Candidates
March 3, 2016

Signs of Trouble for Clinton in General Election?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not clinched the Democratic nomination for president, but she appears on track to do so. Recent analysis and commentary has suggested that she is already shifting her rhetoric towards themes that will appeal to general election voters. Here, for example, is coverage from the Boston Herald just two days ago:

Hillary Clinton focuses on GOP, general election in Boston

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton — hitting Massachusetts with two appearances ahead of [the] critical Super Tuesday vote — was already aiming at the general election, decrying the “mean-spiritedness” and “the hateful rhetoric” of Republican candidates while avoiding any direct mention of her primary opponent….

The Republican candidates are “taking their orders from the Koch brothers” by questioning climate change, Clinton said, while she wants to invest in clean energy. And while Republicans are selling the “snake oil” of trickle-down economics, she said, she wants to raise the federal minimum wage and work for equal pay for women.

In Springfield earlier yesterday, she took a direct shot at Donald Trump, saying, “I don’t think America ever stopped being great, right now we need to make America whole. I want to be a president who encourages people to overcome our divide. The mean-spiritedness, the hateful rhetoric, the insults, that’s not who we are.”

Most candidates make similar moves once they feel they are on course to win their party’s nomination, toning down language that appeals to partisans while focusing more on themes that have a broader appeal. But for Clinton, it may be premature, not because it could cost her the nomination, but because it could lead to a smaller turnout for her in the general election among the Democratic base. The New York Times has an article this morning exploring the dramatic drop-off in turnout in the Democratic primary:

Democratic turnout has fallen drastically since 2008, the last time the party had a contested primary, with roughly three million fewer Democrats voting in the 15 states that have held caucuses or primaries through Tuesday, according to unofficial election results tallied through Wednesday afternoon.

It declined in almost every state, dropping by roughly 50 percent in Texas and 40 percent in Tennessee. In Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, the number of Democrats voting decreased by between a quarter and a third.

The falloff in Democratic primary turnout — which often reveals whether a candidate is exciting voters and attracting them to the polls — reached deep into some of the core groups of voters Mrs. Clinton must not only win in November, but turn out in large numbers. It stands in sharp contrast to the flood of energized new voters showing up at the polls to vote for Donald J. Trump in the Republican contest….

Part of the turnout concern among Democrats has to do with the Republican they now seem to think they will face, businessman Donald Trump:

[Charlie King, former executive director of the New York Democratic Party] and other Democrats said that Mr. Trump could present Democrats with the prospect of a greatly altered political and demographic map. His candidacy is helping spur higher turnout in each of the first four Republican contests, including Nevada, where Mr. Trump’s vote total by itself surpassed overall turnout in the 2012 election, setting a state record. On Super Tuesday, Republicans smashed turnout records in Massachusetts, a traditionally Democratic-leaning state, and saw huge turnouts in Virginia and Tennessee.

And despite the seemingly inexorable demographic rise of Hispanic voters, the American electorate is still overwhelmingly white. Some analysts said they believed Mr. Trump could even exceed Mitt Romney’s 59 percent share of the white vote — winning over disaffected Republicans and even working-class Democratic men, and putting Democratic-leaning swing states like Michigan, and potentially Pennsylvania, in play. That could offset losses Republicans might suffer among Latino voters, forcing the Democratic nominee to overperform significantly among the smaller proportion of nonwhite voters.

Low turnout in the Democratic primary doesn’t necessarily foreshadow a loss for Clinton in November (assuming she gets the nomination), but it does seem to be a concern at the moment. But, as every student of politics knows, all candidates have their shortcomings and challenges to overcome, and at this point there’s no reason to believe that this possibility would doom Clinton.