Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Today's Edwards Mirage

Today CNN came out with a poll which shows John Edwards doing significantly better against Republican candidates than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In general, the Democrats beat the leading Republicans head to head, but Edwards beats Huckabee and Romney by 20 points and has a big edge over Hillary's share with McCain as well. It's natural that Edwards supporters would be encouraged. Things haven't been going so well for them lately. First Hillary had a surge where her support flirted with 50%. Now Obama's gaining while the Edwards campaign seemed to be stagnating. Maybe the CNN poll indicates that Edwards is going to have his moment in the sun as well.

But the numbers actually work the other way. Edwards is doing well in the horse-race polls because he's becoming less well known not because he's becoming more popular. As the Edwards campaign stumbles along, Edwards is having a hard time keeping himself in the public eye and therefore he's becoming less recognizable to voters as a result. As a result, his poll numbers are drifting upward toward the level of "generic Democrat." Doing well in the head to heads with Republicans is actually a bad sign for Edwards.

That's not the case with Clinton and Obama though. They've also been moving up against the Republicans. But they've been doing so against persistent and hostile micro-scrutiny by the media and the Republicans. In other words, Clinton and Obama are getting their support the "old-fashioned way. They're earning it.

To the contrary, Edwards is just getting the good will that comes with being a Democrat. The same trends work among the Republicans. Huckabee and Romney do poorly in the head to heads because their lack of universal recognition means that their head to head support is more like that of "generic Republican." To the contrary, John McCain does well head to head because he had a reputation that goes beyond being a Republican. Huckabee and Romney catch the Republican legacy of unpopularity. McCain has credibility on his own. If Hillary and Obama were to face the unlikely prospect of opposing McCain in the general election, they would be forced to tar McCain with the Republican brand.

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