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.