The Front-Runner’s Peril

Would Hillary Clinton face the usual obstacles on her way to the Democratic nomination?

Former United States Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on stage at the 2014 Massachusetts Conference for Women at Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on December 4, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Getty Images for Massachusetts C
Feb. 6, 2015, midnight

While the fight for the 2016 Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion looks like it will be a wild roller-coast­er ride, the Demo­crat­ic con­test, at least today, looks like a pretty bor­ing af­fair. His­tory sug­gests that in open pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion con­tests, front-run­ners rarely go from the start­ing line to the fin­ish without los­ing a few primar­ies or caucuses along the way. Usu­ally the lead­er stumbles, or a protest vote de­vel­ops some­where in the pro­cess, or an­oth­er can­did­ate catches a bit of luck or sparks a bit of in­terest. Typ­ic­ally, an ele­ment of doubt creeps in at some point, even if the front-run­ner ul­ti­mately re­cov­ers and wins the nom­in­a­tion. But more so in some races than in oth­ers.

In 2012, many of us as­sumed early on that Mitt Rom­ney would win the GOP nom­in­a­tion, and he of course ended up with it — but it turned out to be a pretty rocky trip. In the 2008 Demo­crat­ic con­test, Hil­lary Clin­ton star­ted off as the front-run­ner. Barack Obama up­set her in Iowa, but then she won in New Hamp­shire. Back and forth it went, with Obama com­ing out on top, but you could have driv­en from Ports­mouth, New Hamp­shire, to Los Angeles without passing through a state where Obama won a primary or caucus. (Hint: It is a South­ern route that goes through Arkan­sas.) Even while George W. Bush was rolling to the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion in 2000, he lost sev­en states to John Mc­Cain. Al Gore’s 2000 coron­a­tion stands out as an ex­cep­tion to the rule that front-run­ners usu­ally face set­backs in some states. Hil­lary Clin­ton will have to per­form a del­ic­ate bal­an­cing act in 2016. (Lisa Lake/Getty Im­ages for Mas­sachu­setts Con­fer­ence for Wo­men)

So what about Clin­ton? Could she really lose some­where to Sen. Bernie Sanders or to former Sen. Jim Webb? Sure, it’s pos­sible, but it takes a pretty fer­tile ima­gin­a­tion to pic­ture it right now without Clin­ton really face-plant­ing some­where. What about former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley? While folks in the Wash­ing­ton area, and cer­tainly those in Mary­land, know that he left of­fice un­der less-than-aus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances (you sure can’t blame former Lt. Gov. An­thony Brown en­tirely for the Demo­crats’ loss of the gov­ernor­ship in Novem­ber), that might not hurt him much in a Demo­crat­ic fight that is still a long way off. But H-Rod’s people prob­ably aren’t los­ing a lot of sleep wor­ry­ing about O’Mal­ley. If there is any buzz at all on the Demo­crat­ic side about a po­ten­tial chal­lenge to Clin­ton, it’s around Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren, not O’Mal­ley or any­one else. In a re­cent lunch con­ver­sa­tion with 10 Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives, I heard more people name Cali­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown as a long-shot al­tern­at­ive to Clin­ton than men­tion O’Mal­ley.

War­ren and her folks in­sist that she is not go­ing to run in 2016, and I sus­pect that if you gave the Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat a shot of So­di­um Pentoth­al and wired her to a poly­graph ma­chine, the evid­ence would prob­ably in­dic­ate that she’s be­ing forth­right (though it would be in­ter­est­ing to see if there was any change in breath­ing, skin clam­mi­ness, or oth­er in­dic­at­ors of stress). But at the same time, War­ren is 65 years old, just two years young­er than Clin­ton. If she ever wants to run for pres­id­ent, this might be her last shot, and there ap­pears to be little love lost between the two wo­men and their camps. Clin­ton will have to per­form a del­ic­ate bal­an­cing act. She must sit far enough to the left to fore­stall a ser­i­ous nom­in­a­tion chal­lenge, but not so far that it would jeop­ard­ize win­ning the gen­er­al elec­tion.

Let’s face it: Hil­lary Clin­ton is the least-lib­er­al Demo­crat who can plaus­ibly win the nom­in­a­tion in 2016. In­deed, if she is not the nom­in­ee, it prob­ably will be someone to her left — and also to the left of Pres­id­ent Obama, who is seen by the party’s more ideo­lo­gic­al ele­ments as hav­ing com­prom­ised too much. While the past two Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion fights, in 2004 and 2008, were not so much about ideo­logy, if there is a con­test in 2016, it very likely will have more such over­tones.

Clin­ton looks aw­fully strong for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, and for good reas­on. We will see if it is true that polit­ics, like nature, ab­hors a va­cu­um.

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