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The Florida Primary

Tomorrow, Florida holds its presidential primary.

The Republican race is hotly contested, with John McCain and Mitt Romney running neck-and-neck in the polls. Although Romney actually has more delegates up to this point, McCain is the front-runner nationally. If McCain wins in Florida, his momentum going into Super Tuesday, a week from tomorrow, would be all-but insurmountable. If Romney wins, we will still have a race.

Regardless of the outcome, I think tomorrow is the end for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. Florida was supposed to be his “firewall”. But having not only lost, but badly lost, in the first six states, he surrendered whatever advantage may have had. He now trails the front-runners, not only in Florida, but everywhere else.

The Democratic contest in Florida is technically uncontested. The national party stripped Florida of its delegates, after the state scheduled its primary a week earlier than the official rules allowed. That strikes me as a short-sighted strategy. The Democrats need Florida. It is one of the few states “red” states that the Democrats have a realistic chance of winning in November. (Some people call it a “purple” state.)

Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton is on the ballot and is expected to win, just as she did in Michigan, the other state penalized by the national Democratic party. In all likelihood, these two states’ delegates will wind up getting seated at the convention. I just can’t see the Democrats freezing out their most passionate supporters in two battleground states.

Whatever happens in Florida, the Democratic race is still wide open. Hillary Clinton has a wide lead in delegates over Barack Obama, and she leads the polls in most of the Super Tuesday states. It will be interesting to see if the endorsement of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, which Obama captured today, will make a difference. Historically, endorsements seldom matter very much, but Kennedy is obviously in a category unto himself.

It’s worth considering the different opportunities and problems the two leading Democrats would have in November.

Almost 100% of voting Americans have heard of Hillary Clinton, and know what they think of her. And a pretty high percentage of them (about 48%) don’t like her, and cannot be persuaded to like her, no matter what she may say or do.

That doesn’t mean the remaining 52% will vote for her. It only means they’re “persuadable”. But when you start with a ceiling of 52%, there isn’t much room for error. I mean, both Al Gore and John Kerry started with a higher ceiling than 52%, but they ended up with less than that. This is because some people who are willing to consider voting for you, end up not voting for you, not because they don’t like you, but because they like the other guy better. Or because they just stay home.

So for Hillary to win in November, she needs to hold onto that last 2.1% that will get her over the hump. And historically, that’s tough to pull off. In electoral college terms, she needs to win every state that John Kerry won, and pull away at least a couple of states from the Republican camp. There are only 3 or 4 states where she has even a chance of that, and it is only a chance.

Obama starts out with a much higher ceiling, because there are very few people who actually say they don’t like him. Even the staunchest Republicans — those who have never voted for a Democrat in their lives, and won’t vote for Obama — at least say that he’s a likable guy.

So that means that most Independents — the people who actually settle a presidential race — will at least consider him. So whereas Hillary starts with a ceiling of something like 52%, Obama starts with a ceiling more like 60–65%. Mind you, he wouldn’t get 60–65%, or anything close to it. As in any election, some percentage of those folks would eventually choose the other guy. But the point is they’re available to be persuaded, and for Hillary they’re not.

The problem for Obama is the thinness of his record. The most that his supporters can say, is that he stands for “change” in some vague way. But what kind of change is it? Most voters don’t know. As his background and his proposals start to get better known, uncomfortable truths could seep out. So whereas Obama has a higher ceiling, he has a lower floor. The bottom could really drop out if there are skeletons lurking in his record.

In contrast, we already know Hillary’s skeletons. After her 20 years in the public eye, it’s doubtful we’ll find out anything worse about her than what is already known. So with Hillary, the worst that happens is that she loses a little worse than Kerry and Gore did, and the best that happens is that she ekes out a narrow victory. With Obama, almost anything is possible.

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