Would any Democrat in his or her right mind challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016? Well, yeah, actually.
To call her a prohibitive front-runner is a comical understatement—she has a lock on the Democratic money machine, unprecedented support from the party's base, and a pseudo-campaign ready and waiting for her to take charge. Is there a potential Barack Obama lurking out there? "I don't see anybody on the horizon right now," says a former senior adviser to the 2008 campaign that beat Clinton. "She's in a more dominant position than anyone I've seen in an open-seat race probably in my lifetime."
Even from the left, which was her weakness six years ago, it would be hard to find much traction. A recent Pew poll found that 87 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats want Clinton to run, with 83 percent saying there's a good chance they would vote for her. Compare that with November 2006, when Pew asked a similar question and found only 39 percent of Democrats who said they would like to see Clinton win the nomination.
But there's more than one reason to run for president.
If someone decides to take the plunge against Clinton, he or she would likely have ulterior motives. Some might try to move Clinton in a certain direction or force her to take an ideological stand. Others might hope to raise their profiles, either for a job in a potential Clinton administration or to position themselves for the future. "There's going to be a primary. And if there is a primary, there's going to be people pushing a strong progressive position," says Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a liberal grassroots organizing group.
Take independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist from Vermont who has long been a proud voice on the Democratic Party's left. He has said publicly that he's "prepared" to run, even if it's against Clinton.
"People are hurting, and it is important for leadership now to explain to them why they are hurting and how we can grow the middle class and reverse the economic decline of so many people. And I don't think that is the politics of Senator Clinton or the Democratic establishment," he told The Nation. "People want to hear an alternative set of policies."
There's also Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, who is one of the few Democrats who has said publicly that he'd challenge Clinton. His views are idiosyncratic enough (pro-gun, pro-oil, pro-single-payer health care) that he doesn't clearly represent any particular wing of the party, yet he could potentially tap into rural populist sentiment.
Other names mentioned by some on the left include Russell Feingold, the former senator from Wisconsin. He's also rumored to be eyeing a run for his old Senate seat in 2016. Or Howard Dean, who sought the presidency in 2004. Would he run? "You never say never," Dean has told reporters who ask. Feingold and Dean both have their own grassroots organizing groups, which could amplify their voices and form the foundation of a campaign if they entered the race.
Protest candidates are nothing new, of course. It's what Ron Paul has done with his repeated attempts to win the Republican nomination, and what Jesse Jackson did when he sought the Democratic nod in 1984 and 1988. Neither won, but both raised the salience of issues they cared about and forced the eventual nominee to respond to them.
Beyond ideological ambitions, the other main reason to launch a Sisyphean presidential bid would be to play the long game. Running for president can raise a politician's national profile, and help build connections with donors and local party leaders and activists. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is the name that immediately comes to Democrats' minds here. He's openly eyeing a run, whether Clinton gets in the race or not. At 51, O'Malley has some time on his side. But he's term-limited out of office this year, meaning he's looking for a new job that would keep him relevant. And while he could be a strong presidential candidate, one Maryland political insider mentioned several Cabinet positions, including secretary of Homeland Security, as other prizes.
But one potential candidate is not like the others.
The only Democrat who—at least as things look right now—could be a threat to Clinton is Vice President Joe Biden. In early polls, he's showing strength that comes closest to (although still far from) Clinton's numbers. While most Democrats in Washington are pretty convinced he would never challenge Clinton, with whom he enjoys warm relations by all accounts, he's said publicly that his decision would not depend on hers.
"The only reason to run for the president of the United States is if you truly believe you are better positioned to do what is most needed in the country," Biden told Barbara Walters last month on The View. "My experience uniquely positions me."
And even though Clintonworld seems intent on avoiding one, a contentious primary could actually be good for Clinton. It was only after her loss in Iowa in 2008, when her aura of invincibility went out the window, that Clinton turned her campaign around.
"There's nothing particularly appealing about inevitability. There's nothing good about tactics getting out in front of message," the Obama adviser said of Hillary's second run. "Hillary was, I think, not a very good candidate in 2007 and then a very, very good candidate in 2008, because once all that other stuff went away—the inevitability—and then once she was kind of a plucky challenger, she really began to articulate a message that resonated with people more readily."
Does Clinton really want to head untested into a general-election fight against a Republican who has just emerged victorious from what promises to be a bruising primary battle?
Maybe, in at least some small way, she should be grateful to any Democrat who has the guts to do it.
This article appears in the March 15, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Primary Reasons.