Obama can't win general election, Clinton advisor says

Mark Penn says primary results in Pennsylvania will show that Barack Obama can't win in November but Hillary Clinton can.

Published March 14, 2008 2:21PM (EDT)

During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, made an astounding statement: "We believe that [the Pennsylvania primary result] will show that Hillary is ready to win, and that Sen. Obama really can't win the general election," Penn said. (Audio is available here.)

Later in the call, when a reporter asked about the statement, Clinton campaign Communications Director Howard Wolfson said, "Mark did not say that." Penn eventually revised his statement, saying, "I think if you can't win Pennsylvania, it raises serious questions about whether he can win a general election."

Now, as plenty of people have already observed, this isn't exactly a logical argument -- primary voters are different from general election voters, and success in primaries does not guarantee eventual victory. (See Kerry, John.) As the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder said:

Of course Obama can win the general election; it's illogical to generalize from the vote totals alone, as I and others have pointed out. Yes, Obama's Gary Hart-Jesse Jackson coalition is untested in modern general elections, but we live in hyperpartisan times, Democrats have an enormous partisan identification identification advantage, and Democrats are much more enthusiastic about their candidate than Republicans are. There's just no way to justify Penn's assertion from reading a poll.

The Obama campaign has responded to Penn's comment. In a statement, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said:

It can't inspire too much confidence in the Clinton campaign when their pollster ignores both polls and math by making comments as divorced from reality as this one. Senator Obama is leading in delegates, states won, the popular vote, and fares better than Senator Clinton against John McCain in poll after poll, including critical swing states like Iowa, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Update: Obama spokesman Bill Burton has just e-mailed out remarks made by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter:

And interestingly, I think Senator Obama, if he’s the candidate, will run okay in some of those counties. There’s no question. Hillary Clinton is a better fit for those counties. Is a better fit for southwest Pennsylvania. But I think either one of them is going to carry the state in the fall.

"Clinton campaign pollsters, please take note," Burton wrote in the e-mail.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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