It is said that while the right looks for converts, the left looks for heretics. The consequences of that tendency are demonstrated in this perceptive story from the LA Times:
It is a paradox of the 2008 presidential race. By a wide margin, several polls show, voters want a Democrat to win — yet when offered head-to-head contests of leading announced candidates, many switch allegiance to the Republican.
In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted this month, this dynamic was most clearly evident with Clinton.
When registered voters were asked which party they would like to win the White House, they preferred a Democrat over a Republican by 8 percentage points. But in a race pitting Clinton against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican was favored by 10 percentage points.
Clinton’s showing against Giuliani was the starkest example of how the general Democratic edge sometimes narrows or vanishes when voters are given specific candidates to choose between.
The poll also showed Clinton trailing when matched against two other Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The deficits, however, were within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
These results, as well as follow-up interviews of poll respondents, reflect the array of difficulties that Clinton could face as the Democratic nominee.
Plenty of time remains for Clinton to temper resistance to her candidacy. But for now, her failure to match her party’s generic advantage underscores the primacy of personal appeal in a presidential race, regardless of political context.
“Personal appeal” is part of the problem, but I don’t think it really captures it. Hillary, Edwards and Obama are anything but repellent personalities. In their own ways, they can be charismatic. The problem is the toll that being a Democratic leader takes against a candidate’s image for strength and having a core of beliefs.
The one-issue caucuses within the party, especially labor, put so much pressure on candidates to carry their water regardless of how the general public feels, regardless of what common sense and experience shows that one of two things happens. The Democratic leader becomes unviable because the special interests exert their veto power; or they become a flip-flopping ball of confusion, totally reliant on careful parsing of words and PR spin to make their positions seem coherent and principled.
To some degree, the netroots phenomenon was supposed to overcome this. Kos is a “just win baby” Democrat who wants the party to unite around broad principles. But despite the good intentions, the netroots have somehow evolved into yet another single-issue constituency — the “get out of Iraq now” caucus. Both Clinton and Obama joined a small minority of Democrats in opposing the troop funding bill, because they believed they would otherwise be crucified. But that position is likely to come back to haunt them later.