Big State Primaries and General Electability

Keith Sharfman —  6 February 2008

In yesterday’s Super Tuesday primaries, Hillary Clinton won the two largest contests–California and New York–but the delegate count was close to even (perhaps Clinton even finished slightly behind) because Barack Obama won more states, albeit smaller ones.

The Clinton campaign argues that Clinton’s victories in larger, delegate-rich states suggest that she would be a more viable candidate than Obama in the general election. But does that conclusion really follow?

I don’t see why. States that are heavily Democratic, whether large or small, are very likely to vote for whoever is running on the Democratic ticket in November. The candidate who gives Democrats the best hopes of winning in the general election is the one who will do better among moderates, independents, and Republicans. So the fact that Clinton won in heavily Democratic states such as New York and California does not seem to be a very meaningful statistic for assessing whether she or Obama would do better in the general election. To the contrary, the candidates’ relative performance in more politically balanced or conservative states (regardless of size) would seem like a better indicator of general electability, especially in such states where independents and Republicans are permitted to participate in the Democratic primary. Judging by that measure, Obama is the candidate who seems more likely to do better in the general election.

To be sure, the campaign is far from over and much can still happen to influence voter opinion in the remaining primary contests and in the general election. My goal here is simply to debunk some spin by the Clinton campaign that seems to be based on an erroneous statistical inference.