Does Experience Really Matter?

Opinion by Matthew Dowd, ABC New Political Contributor

At a time when Hillary Clinton falls further and further behind in the delegate count to Barack Obama, and the chances of her winning the Democratic nomination look more and more like drawing to an inside straight, let's take a look at how the general election stacks up.

There has been a ton of discussion on which Democrat is stronger in a race against John McCain so let's take a look at some key things to remember when looking forward to the fall.

Hillary Clinton, obviously, has a broader experience in the rough and tumble world of national politics. She has been through more wars and battles than Obama, and would seem to have an “experience” advantage. But has that always been the best predictor of success??? When looking at recent presidential campaign experience over the last few decades, it seems that candidates with less national “battle” experience seem to have more success in winning elections.

In 2000, Bush had much less experience than Gore on the national level, and won the race. Bill Clinton, in 1992, had much less experience than then President Bush, but ended up winning. Jimmy Carter had basically no national campaign experience in 1976 against then incumbent President Ford who had much more experience, and Carter won.

So with polls bouncing around this year, and experience not the best predictor, what should we look at?

Many Clinton advocates (including Gov. Rendell of Pennsylvania) say that since Clinton is more defined and Obama less defined to the public, that this means she is a stronger candidate in the fall. I would actually argue the exact opposite. I would much prefer to have a candidate with more “maneuvering” room with the general public and be able to run a little freer of set attitudes so the margin for victory or loss is broad.

Hillary Clinton’s margin for defining herself and open running probably is around 8 to 10 percent of the public -- meaning that 90 percent of the public is already either solidly for her or solidly against. And best case for her is those numbers are even. So she is fairly defined, and not in a way that helps her positively in the fall.

Obama, on the other hand, has around 20 to 25 percent of the public who aren’t solidly for or against him. Therefore, he has a greater ability to run free and better determine his future. I would rather have a candidate less defined going into the fall than one defined nearly completely with a large amount negative.

This is why if you gave the McCain campaign folks truth serum, they would say they prefer Clinton to be the Democratic nominee because most of the work has already been done for them. Though the longer this Democratic process goes on in a bitter battle, the Clinton folks are making sure Obama may also be weakened going into the fall.

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