The Democrats’ Distress

With a bench of presidential contenders that is painfully thin, the party’s choices are Clinton and… uh, Clinton.

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Charlie Cook
Sept. 11, 2015, 5 a.m.

Let’s start with the chil­dren’s book and re­cent movie, Al­ex­an­der and the Ter­rible, Hor­rible, No Good, Very Bad Day, then sub­sti­tute Hil­lary Clin­ton for Al­ex­an­der and year for day. Hardly ori­gin­al: A Google search of the re­vised title turns up more than 200,000 hits. But apt.

Clin­ton’s 2015 star­ted out look­ing so prom­ising. Her second shot at the Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion was as clean as nonin­cum­bents ever get. The feel­ing that she had a good chance of win­ning the gen­er­al elec­tion was con­sol­ing even to Demo­crats who wer­en’t her biggest fans.

Now, Demo­crats are get­ting ex­tremely nervous: Her elect­or­al pro­spects don’t look so sure. More voters now view Clin­ton un­fa­vor­ably than fa­vor­ably. Her once-strong leads over Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents have shrunk to with­in the mar­gin of er­ror. Al­though most Demo­crats still dis­miss the sub­stance of the con­tro­versy over her State De­part­ment emails, even the most starry-eyed must ac­know­ledge it has ex­posed her can­did­acy as far more fra­gile than in their worst night­mares.

So, what’s an anxious polit­ic­al party to do?

It’s pretty clear that Joe Biden, the pop­u­lar vice pres­id­ent, hasn’t de­cided yet wheth­er to jump in. He’s ob­vi­ously torn between a lifelong pas­sion to oc­cupy the Oval Of­fice and the real­it­ies of launch­ing a can­did­acy less than five months be­fore the first bal­lots are cast. Sit­ting vice pres­id­ents don’t have the lux­ury of run­ning in­sur­gent, guer­illa-type cam­paigns; the se­cur­ity re­quire­ments alone would mean an ex­pens­ive cam­paign. Add to this the an­guish that Biden and his fam­ily con­tin­ue to ex­per­i­ence over the death just three and a half months ago of his 46-year-old son, Beau, and the ledger on his de­cision tips de­cidedly to­ward the don’t-run side. Maybe he’ll an­nounce his can­did­acy to­mor­row, but he prob­ably won’t, and every day that passes makes it less likely.

This brings us to Bernie Sanders, the sur­prise of the Demo­crat­ic cam­paign. It’s re­mark­able to me that the 74-year-old Ver­mont sen­at­or, who will be six years older next Elec­tion Day than Ron­ald Re­agan was in 1980, is be­ing taken this ser­i­ously. Has any mem­ber of Con­gress dur­ing the past 23 years been less con­sequen­tial, less ef­fect­ive, and taken less ser­i­ously than Sanders? Is there any Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or less able to win a na­tion­wide gen­er­al elec­tion?

Even giv­ing him the be­ne­fit of every doubt, Sanders will have a hard time gain­ing the nom­in­a­tion. Sup­pose he wins the act­iv­ist-dom­in­ated caucuses in Iowa, where polls show him trail­ing by only 8 per­cent­age points, and goes on to pre­vail in New Hamp­shire, where he’s ahead. Then what? There aren’t enough oth­er states with caucuses or with lily-white Demo­crat­ic primary elect­or­ates for a can­did­ate like Sanders, who draws little sup­port from voters of col­or, to beat Clin­ton, who runs well among minor­ity groups, ac­cord­ing to re­search by Geof­frey Skel­ley at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia.

Only one potential candidate could go from a standstill to full speed in a short enough period of time, and it’s a name that would petrify Clinton’s headquarters: Elizabeth Warren. 

Though I’ve been luke­warm about Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, he has long ap­peared to be the only Demo­crat now run­ning who looks like a ser­i­ous al­tern­at­ive to Clin­ton. But every day that Sanders rules the hearts of the party’s lib­er­als is a day that the former Mary­land gov­ernor is de­prived of oxy­gen.

There’s little ques­tion the Demo­crat­ic bench of po­ten­tial con­tenders is pain­fully thin. We’ve already heard the rounds of spec­u­la­tion about Al Gore or John Kerry jump­ing in; neither looks ter­ribly plaus­ible. Get­ting in­to a race, or­gan­iz­ing a na­tion­wide cam­paign, and get­ting on bal­lots in 50 states—mundane in the­ory—is a daunt­ing feat in a short peri­od of time.

Few people un­der­stand the Demo­crat­ic del­eg­ate se­lec­tion pro­cess bet­ter than Elaine Kamar­ck, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “A can­did­ate who is not on a primary bal­lot can’t win del­eg­ates from that state—pure and simple,” she and Ash­ley Gab­ri­ele wrote re­cently for Brook­ings. “And so miss­ing a fil­ing dead­line is akin to for­feit­ing del­eg­ates to the con­ven­tion.” By the end of Novem­ber, they point out, a pro­spect­ive can­did­ate will have for­feited about 500 votes; by year’s end, more than 1,000. By Janu­ary 15, dead­lines will have passed for more than half of the del­eg­ates to next year’s Demo­crat­ic con­ven­tion—the num­ber that’s needed to win.

Only one po­ten­tial can­did­ate could go from a stand­still to full speed in a short enough peri­od of time, and it’s a name that would pet­ri­fy Clin­ton’s headquar­ters: Eliza­beth War­ren. But the fresh­man sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts has stead­fastly shown no in­terest in run­ning.

The good news for Clin­ton is that, des­pite her dif­fi­culties, she is still very likely to win the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. For her party, however, the elect­or­al out­look is less san­guine. Hav­ing pretty much de­cided early on to put all of their eggs in the Clin­ton bas­ket, they are now wor­ried that the bas­ket is flimsy. In the worst case, the party might turn to a Biden, but don’t ex­pect it.

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