Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., are offering Democrats vastly different paths to the presidency, with their key arguments centering on which candidate is better equipped to defeat Republican John McCain.
While both campaigns selectively cite polling data to make their cases to Democrats, a thorough review of the numbers reveals a more nuanced portrait than either campaign is wont to acknowledge, Democratic strategists and pollsters say.
A Tale of Two Constituencies
In arguing that each candidate is clearly more electable, the campaigns "are both wrong," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who is not aligned with either campaign.
"They have different constituencies," Hart said. "Sen. Clinton has a greater ability to reach deeper and stronger into the Democratic constituency than does Sen. Obama. And Sen. Obama has a greater ability to reach across to independents and Republicans than Sen. Clinton."
Despite a rough primary campaign, national polls show both Clinton and Obama running strong against Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the general election. The latest Gallup Poll numbers have McCain up 46-45 over Obama and 47-45 over Clinton -- both well within the poll's margin of error.
"Neither one has an argument that beats the other one on electability," said Donnie Fowler, a veteran Democratic operative. "No politician is perfect. The point is, they're very different candidates."
Indeed, Clinton and Obama claim they'd pull together very different electoral coalitions -- in each case, they hope, bringing together voting blocs that would give the Democratic Party an edge.
Clinton has demonstrated strong appeal among women and lower socioeconomic groups, and her campaign touts her as the best candidate in states that have constituted the battleground of recent presidential contests.
Obama, meanwhile, appears better positioned to grab upper-income voters and holds the promise of attracting blacks and younger voters to cast ballots in disproportionate numbers.
His appeal is also built in part on the possibility of him making traditionally Republican states competitive in a general election.
"We are going to put more states in play than Sen. Clinton," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe told reporters last week.
Big States Favor Clinton
Clinton has ratcheted up her argument to superdelegates of late.
ABC News reported that Clinton told one superdelegate, Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., that Obama "can't win," and Clinton aides have been mentioning the controversy over speeches by Obama's former pastor as evidence that he'd be seen as too out-of-the-mainstream in a general election.
Clinton aides are hoping that a victory in Pennsylvania April 22 will add to other wins in critical general-election states, including Ohio and Florida, as they argue that Clinton is demonstrating superior electoral strength.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton leading McCain 44-42 in Florida, with McCain ahead of Obama 46-37 in the Sunshine State.
The same poll had Obama in a statistical tie with McCain in Ohio, leading 43-42, with Clinton enjoying a more comfortable 48-39 lead in a hypothetical matchup with McCain in that state.
Quinnipiac also has Clinton running stronger than Obama in Pennsylvania -- a state carried by Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, and that Democrats consider crucial to their prospects this year.
Obama Draws Independents, New Voters
Obama supporters counter that the Clinton campaign is wrong to focus on primary results as evidence of candidates' potential strength in a general election.
While Democrats are choosing between two strong Democratic candidates in primaries and caucuses, the choice will be between McCain and only one remaining Democrat in the fall.
The Obama campaign is confident that it will ultimately be able to capture voters who are now supporting Clinton; one supporter likened it his position to starting with the support Kerry received in the 2004 campaign.
And Obama wants to build on those numbers by bringing some Republicans and large numbers of independents to his side. That, he argues, could pose a tougher challenge to McCain, since he enjoys wide appeal among independent voters.
"Obama is saying, 'The proof is the pudding,' and he's leading this race," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist. "They see they can open up more of the electorate -- and certainly out West, where he is far less polarizing. What she says, meanwhile, is 'I have the experience, and experience in national security.' "
The Obama campaign has also argued that only a fresh voice -- without the mixed political legacy of the Clinton years -- can take on a candidate who himself represents a break with the status quo, in McCain.
Folly of Early Predictions
A New York Times/CBS poll released Friday found that 57 percent of Democrats think Obama stands the better chance of defeating McCain, compared with 28 percent for Clinton.
But it's far too early to use polls to make arguments about a general election that's still seven months away, said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is unaligned in the race.
"The truth is unless you've been endowed with the gift of prophecy, it's a fool's errand," Mellman said. "We just don't know who's more electable, and anyone who does say they know is making it up -- probably out of self-interest."
Given the current state of the race, the electability argument is particularly critical for Clinton to make.
She has fallen well behind in both the popular vote and the delegate race, and her only realistic path to the nomination involves convincing superdelegates to brush aside those numbers and flock to her side.
"The whole point is for delegates, however they are chosen, to really ask themselves who would be the best president and who would be our best nominee against Sen. McCain," Clinton said Thursday.
Electability was a big source of support for Kerry in 2004, and could be equally potent this year, said Erik Smith, a Democratic political consultant.
Republicans Ready to Rumble
McCain has many Democrats nervous -- and has Democratic voters and superdelegates thinking critically about matchups.
"The more assured Democrats feel they can win, the more they'll go with their hearts rather than their heads," Smith said. "McCain can separate himself from Bush on everything except Iraq. Electability becomes more of a pressing concern, a higher-priority concern among Democratic voters."
Republicans are relishing the combat.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the longer the Democratic race goes on, the better it is for McCain.
"McCain is bringing all the Republicans together, and frankly, a big chunk of independents," Boehner told reporters Thursday. "It's pretty clear that the clawing that's going on between the two Democrats left in this race are leaving scars among Democrats, and the longer this fight goes on, the more disappointed one side or the other is going to be."
But Hart, the Democratic pollster, said the overall dynamics of the race will favor whichever Democrat emerges from the primaries.
"They may be parsing differences, but overall I think both candidates are going to be strong," he said.