Some people reject that idea. They believe that this election should be another referendum on the war, and, perhaps even more important, about the way America was misled into that war. That belief is one reason many progressives fervently support Barack Obama, an early war opponent, even though his domestic platform is somewhat to the right of Mrs. Clinton’s.
As an early war opponent myself, I understand their feelings. But should and ought don’t win elections. And polls show that the economy has overtaken Iraq as the public’s biggest concern.
True, the news from Iraq will probably turn worse again. Meanwhile, a hefty majority of voters continue to say that the war was a mistake, and people are as angry as ever about the $10 billion a month wasted on the neocons’ folly.
Yet for the time being, public optimism about Iraq is rising: 53 percent of the public believes that the United States will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals. So anger about the war isn’t likely to be decisive in the election.
The state of the economy, on the other hand, could well give Democrats a huge advantage — especially, to be blunt about it, with white working-class voters who supported President Bush in 2004.
Even at its best, the Bush economy left most voters unimpressed: only once, in January 2007, did a slight majority of those questioned by the USA Today/Gallup poll describe the economy as “excellent” or “good,” rather than “only fair” or “poor.” A year later, only 19 percent of voters had a good word for the economy.
This collapse in economic confidence has occurred even though the full economic effects of the implosion of the housing market and the freezing of the credit markets have yet to be felt. As more things fall apart, perceptions will only get worse.
All of this should work to the Democrats’ advantage. They can contrast the Clinton boom with the Bush bust; they can make the case that Republican economic ideology, with its fixation on privatization and deregulation, helped get us into this mess.
And John McCain can be ridiculed as a man who has declared on a number of occasions that he doesn’t know much about economics — only to insist, straight-talker that he is, that he never said any such thing.
But first, of course, the Democrats have to settle on a nominee. And the shift in electoral focus from Iraq to economic anxiety clearly plays to Mrs. Clinton’s strengths.
According to exit polls, Mr. Obama narrowly edged out Mrs. Clinton among Ohio voters who consider Iraq the most important issue — but these voters cast only 19 percent of the ballots in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton led by 12 points among the much larger group of voters citing the economy as the most important issue — and by 16 points among those who cited health care. Mrs. Clinton’s winning margin was twice as large among those who were worried about their own financial situation as among those who weren’t.
Why has Mr. Obama stumbled when it comes to economic issues? Well, on health care — which is closely tied to overall concerns about financial security — there is a clear, substantive difference between the candidates, with the Clinton plan being significantly stronger.
More broadly, I suspect that the Obama mystique — his carefully created image as a transformational, even transcendent figure — has created a backlash among those unconvinced that he’s interested in the nuts-and-bolts work of fixing things. Ohio voters were more likely to say that Mr. Obama inspires them — but more likely to say that Mrs. Clinton has a clear plan for the country’s problems.
And Mr. Obama’s attempt to win over workers by portraying himself as a fierce critic of Nafta looked, and was, deeply insincere — an appearance particularly costly for a candidate who tries to seem above politics as usual.
Thanks to Tuesday’s results, the nomination fight will go on to Pennsylvania in April, and probably beyond — and rightly so. It’s now clear that Mrs. Clinton, like Mr. Obama, has strong grass-roots support that cannot be simply brushed aside without alienating voters that the party will badly need in November. So the Democratic National Committee had better get moving on plans to do Michigan and Florida over, to give the eventual nominee the legitimacy he or she needs.
And, as the Democrats ponder their choices, they might want to consider which candidate can most convincingly ask: “Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?”