Thursday, January 17, 2013

Q Day 7: The WH '16 Dem Field if Clinton Runs

TapirBoy1 asks:
To what extent does an HRC presidential run pre-winnow the field before the Iowa Caucus?
(Slightly edited for clarity)

That's a great question.

Democratic fields for open nominations have typically been fairly large, with one big exception: 2000, when only Bill Bradley challenged Al Gore. 2008 was typical, with six plausible nominees running (Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Dodd, Richardson, Biden). Similarly, in 2004, there were about seven plausible nominees who made it to Iowa. Democrats typically have done little winnowing between the "all-in" stage and Iowa; that is, there are candidates such as Mark Warner and Evan Bayh who say they are exploring runs and then get out, but few if any similar to Pawlenty, Liddy Dole, and Quayle, who mount full-on campaigns but then fold well before Iowa.

So 2000 really was unusual for the Democrats. Could 2016 be similar?

I'm afraid all I have here is a very strong and definitive...maybe.

What we need to ask, basically, are two things: is Hillary Clinton '16 similar to Al Gore '00? And: if so, would it have the same result?

The thing is that there's really no similar case. In 1972, perhaps Humphrey or Ted Kennedy would have been similar, but Humphrey didn't understand the new system and entered late, while Kennedy didn't run at all. In 1976 only Kennedy, who didn't run, might have been a similar heavyweight. In 1984 Mondale didn't really have the same kind of strength as Gore '00...he had never really run for president before, was four years out of office, and had been the VP for a failed president, not one who was wildly popular among Democrats. Kennedy, once again, didn't run. There's no one in 1988 or 1992 that comes close to qualifying. In 2004 there's Gore, who would have been a very interesting test, but he didn't run. In 2008, perhaps Gore still might have had field-clearing strength, but again he didn't run.

In other words, probably the second-strongest candidate to enter the Democratic primaries during the modern era was Walter Mondale in 1984, and he failed to clear the field. But that's in the early days of the reformed process, when it was far less clear how party actors could control nominations (in fact, 1984 is generally accepted as a major turning point).

It's perhaps also worth peeking over to the GOP side: in 1988, George H.W. Bush totally failed to clear the field, despite being if anything in a stronger position than Gore in 2000.

What I think all of this history says is that there are very few precedents, and those few we have don't really point in the same direction. And so...maybe.


  1. What about candidates who have distinctly said they will not run if HRC runs? My preferred candidate -- Senator Gillibrand has said as much. This seems like a different dynamic than someone who decides not to run because HRC is going to be too formidable. This seems to me what makes 2016 distinct from most of the examples you mention.

    I don't think Cuomo has said something similar -- so Gillibrand may be the only one. But I know there have at least been reports that Cuomo is waiting to see what HRC decides. Also, I wonder if O'Malley would be like Gillibrand -- only willing to run if HRC doesn't, because he wants HRC to be president.

    Here's another interesting question: It seems to me that HRC can wait and get into the race really late (summer/Fall 2015?) without drastically harming her chances to win. I'm not a primary elections specialist, so I may be wrong about that. Anyway, back to the question, does HRC's ability to wait to decide to run keep people out of the race (e.g., O'Malley, Gillibrand) who need to start early? Again that seems different from the not-choosing-to-run-because-of-HRC's-strength. And again I could be completely and utterly wrong.

    1. I don' think she would get in that late because of fundraising. I'd bet it would be spring. At that point, folks not inclined to challenger her would clear out, but I do think there will be a few who announce earlier, and stay in. In fact, I think that's the healthiest scenario. It would be awful for Hillary to fully clear the field, becoming the presumptive nominee in 2015, because 1) she'd have no competition with which to sharpen her game and 2) the primaries would be worthless coronations, with no chance to actually debate policy and vote on a preferred direction, which can provide a great deal of validation and momentum to the best candidate. Much better for her to run in at least a field of three or four, so she reestablish her candidate chops, and score knock outs in Iowa and New Hampshire. Not that that's foreordained. But I think it would be the best outcome for HRC and the party.

  2. I think part of this is that the last few years have demonstrated that you can have a softer landing if you run for the nomination and lose. Especially on the Democratic side- you might still end up on the ticket (Edwards, Biden), or in the cabinet (Clinton, Richarson pre-scandal), or a sort of party elder (Dean, Edwards pre-scandal). If you avoid a humiliating gaffe and can stand the work of running for President, there's little downside (and hell, Joe Biden proves even that first one isn't a hard-and-fast rule).

    So, I think the field with HRC will depend on the specific circumstances other potential candidates are in- or maybe just the circumstances that those candidates THINK they're in. For example: Cuomo may think he's better served by staying out, endorsing early, and being a good soldier for the Clintons, as he and HRC would have a lot of the same profile, and he's already close to the Clintons. But maybe O'Malley doesn't think that way- he's term limited (sorta, he'd have to sit out for four years), maybe MD's two senators don't seem particularly close to retirement, and 2024 is a long time away...maybe he thinks this is his only real chance to move up. Hard to say what he's thinking, of course. But my point is, if the field clears, it might have more to do with those circumstances than any structural element of the primary process.

    1. As a side note, as a native Marylander I still have trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that O'Malley is currently on most of the pundits' short list for 2016 nominees. I've long absorbed the idea that MD was a kind of Nowheresville that does not produce major national candidates. If memory serves, Spiro Agnew is the only MD politician ever to end up on a major-party presidential ticket. I remember reading a column sometime in the early 2000s suggesting the then-governor, Parris Glendening, as a contender for the 2004 presidential nomination. The failure of that idea to jell further solidified in my mind how ridiculous it was to look toward this state as a pool of potential presidents.

  3. I disagree that either Humphrey or Kennedy could have cleared the field in 1972. Chappaquiddick was just too recent not to be a serious handicap for Kennedy, while many on the left still held a grudge against Humphrey for his past support of LBJ and the Vietnam War. (To be sure, after four years of Nixon, Humphrey was looking better to progressives than he did in 1968, and even those who did not vote for him in 1968 would probably have backed him against Nixon in 1972. But that doesn't mean he'd be their first choice for the nomination.)

    I don't know if HRC will clear the field, but she certainly has better chances of doing so than either Humphrey or Kennedy did in 1972.

    1. Yeah, you're totally right about at least HHH in 1972. His on-paper credentials are pretty good, but thinking in terms of party factions you're completely correct.

      I'm not as sure about EMK. Harder to figure that one. It's close to Chappaquiddick, but it's also close to RFK '68...I could see arguments either way.

  4. Speaking of a Clinton WH run in '16, here's an early entry for your "don't pay attention to state polls" file, Jonathan.

  5. It seems like we're missing the elephant in the room. Hillary Clinton is not just a Democratic Party heavyweight. She would also be the first female president, seeking the nomination of a party that heavily female. After coming so close to the nomination in 2008 and just missing it, women are going to have a lot less tolerance for white male candidates, or even just male candidates. And the only Democrats more qualified than her are constitutionally ineligible for the office.

    All she has to do to win is reassemble her coalition from '08, pick up the people who liked her a lot, but liked Obama more, and a handful of converts (like me), and she's got a solid majority of the party. It took a once-in-a-generation political talent to barely beat her the first time. To beat her in '16, another candidate would have to get everyone who came out for Obama in 08, or convert her supporters. I really don't see Martin O'Malley firing people up like that.

    Anyone who gets in the race with her will have to answer the same question from every endorser, every donor, every potential volunteer: why not Hillary? There are plenty of answers to that, but are there any compelling enough to muster the support of anything approaching a majority of the party?

  6. But don't we have a really good example of this phenomenon? I mean really good: the prospective candidate herself.

    Don't forget how much of a heavyweight HRC was considered to be in 2007. Nobody thought she could be beat, the Rs were all basing their public discussion of their strategies of opposing Hillary...and she drew a bunch of strong challengers and ended up losing.

    Sure, she's been SecState and is very popular, but she was popular before she started running for '08 and she hadn't yet had the legacy of her losing primary campaign.

    1. Very good point, RM. Hadn't thought of that!

      Now, don't forget that there WAS some scare-off effects in 2008. The example that comes to mind most readily is Mark Warner. Really could have been a solid contender. Dropped out once Obama and Edwards were clearly in. Why?

      My thinking is that the 2008 race had a substantial element of ABC (Anybody But Clinton) to it. However, the natural beneficiaries of that were Obama & Edwards; the rest of the field could't make a credible case that they should have gotten that vote. (says the former Richardson (!) supporter) To my thinking, Warner dropped out because, with HRC in, he needed to be THE ABC candidate, not one of them.

      The question arises, then: why didn't Edwards or Obama drop out? Well, Edwards had a limited window of fame from 2004 to ride. Obama, in a sense, was having his name tossed around for him, and Warner's dropping out was the window he needed (and, having a current job, he could afford to keep his toes in the water longer than Warner).

      Do I buy all this? Meh. But you're absolutely right that 2008 is the best comparison case.

    2. She lost in 2008 because she faced an Obama, who was a phenomenon of his own. Who will be the Obama in the 2016 contest? I suppose there's always a potential that one of the new faces could come to occupy that role, but it hasn't been a common occurrence historically. And even with the presence of Obama in 2008 (as well as the Hillary team's strategic blunders such as their failure to account for proportional allocation of delegates), he just barely managed to defeat her, in one of the closest nomination battles in history.

      Another thing (and this is a point Steve Kornacki has been making recently) is that she went into 2008 as a still highly polarizing figure. It was an image she'd worked hard to shed as senator, but it still existed. After she settled into her role as Sec. of State (itself a much less polarizing position) and Obama became the right's new bugaboo, practically replacing their seemingly intractable Clinton obsession (so much so that in the last few years a strain of right-wing commentary has emerged which looks back fondly on the Clinton years as a model of bipartisan moderation in contrast to Obama's supposed hardcore leftism), Hillary's public image greatly improved. If she runs in 2016, there's little doubt the right will quickly resurrect their old Clinton hatred, but she'll be starting the race from a different public vantage point than the one she occupied in 2008. And to Democratic voters, her support for the Iraq War (a major contributing factor to the ABH phenomenon in 2008) will have faded as an issue.

  7. I think the "if HRC runs" is a very big "if." Her recent health issues may (or may not) be an indication that she may not want the stress of the campaign (or the office). Like it or not, she will be 69 at the time of the election, which is an age at which a lot of us find ourselves with a lot less energy. Should she run (and be elected) she would be 73 when she finished a first term. I wouldn't bet a lot on her deciding to run (and, conversely,I wouldn't bet a lot that she won't run).

  8. Thanks for breaking down your thoughts on this JB. Like you, my conclusion is...I don't know.

  9. If HRC decides to run, she'll have to decide early--the media won't leave her alone until she decides one way or the other. And if she announces early, she will have no heavyweight opposition. There's a clear and very strong feeling that it's her turn--that she's earned being the first female President, and that it's time for a woman to be a Democratic party candidate and to be President.

    I supported Obama in 2008. But Hillary and Bill Clinton have been so strong for Obama and important to him that Obama supporters are going to support her. So if she runs, she'll be the nominee. Almost the same dynamic holds for the electorate at large. What defections from Obama's base there might be will be compensated by a higher percentage of white women.

    This is a unique situation is what I'm basically saying, because of course a lot can happen between now and election day 2016.

    And by the way, the only likely candidate this will take out of future running is Joe Biden. Everybody else is young enough to run when she's done.


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