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.
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.