March 13, 2008

I thought it had become clear in recent weeks that the Clinton campaign is much better off when Mark Penn, Clinton’s pollster and campaign strategist, isn’t talking to reporters. Indeed, over the last week or so, I’ve noticed that Penn’s name seems to be showing up in print quite a bit less.

But, alas, Penn piped up again yesterday and, of course, sparked a controversy.

Though the campaign later argued that he hadn’t said it, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief campaign strategist told reporters this morning that Sen. Barack Obama “can’t win the general election.” [...]

Here is what Penn said.... It’s in the last 20 seconds or so that he says Obama “really can’t win the general election.” As you’ll hear, he also says that “if Barack Obama can’t win” in Pennsylvania, “how could he win the general election?”

Later, a reporter asks what he meant. Clinton campaign communications chief Howard Wolfson jumps in to say that “Mark did not say that.”

Regrettably, he already had. USA Today posted the audio clip.

There are a couple of different angles to this, none of which help Penn's case.

First, I can appreciate why the campaign would quickly try to downplay Penn’s remarks, but the truth is, despite the stir the comments made, this really isn’t that surprising. The Clinton campaign has effectively been making this argument for weeks; Penn was just more explicit about it than Clinton and her aides would probably prefer.

Second, Penn’s argument — even the intended argument — is based on a faulty premise. Penn’s point was that Obama will likely lose the Pennsylvania primary, which demonstrates a general-election weakness. But there’s ample evidence to show how flawed this thinking is. Penn surely knows this, but candidates can lose a state’s primary and still win the state in the general election. (Obama lost Massachusetts; any chance he’d lose it in November?) Indeed, specifically when it comes to Pennsylvania, the latest polling shows Obama losing to Clinton by a wide margin among Dems, but nevertheless faring better than Clinton in a general-election match-up against McCain.

Third, I’m personally not sure that either Dem is “unelectable” in November. Recent polling shows Clinton and Obama leading McCain nationally.

And fourth, my biggest fear in relation to Penn’s remarks is what Jonathan Chait described.

She needs to convince the remaining uncommitted superdelegates to split for her by about a 2-to-1 margin. The only way she can get a split like that is if she can persuasively argue that Obama is unelectable. And the only way she can do that is to make him unelectable. Some people have treated this as an unfortunate byproduct of Clinton’s decision to continue her campaign. It’s actually a central element of the strategy. Penn is already saying he’s unelectable. It’s not true, but by the time the convention rolls around, it may well be.

Can they just stick to going after McCain?

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