Off to the Races

Hillary Clinton Will Win the Nomination, But Then What?

If she runs against a mainstream Republican, her weakness among independents spells trouble.

Hillary Clinton campaigns in Hooksett, N.H.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Feb. 11, 2016, 8 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is fa­cing a myri­ad of chal­lenges in her bid to be­come pres­id­ent, but los­ing the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion to Bernie Sanders is not one. Iron­ic­ally while Clin­ton was widely con­sidered to be far to the left of her hus­band’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion, she is now fa­cing a party that has moved strongly to her left. Sanders is cap­tur­ing the ima­gin­a­tion and pas­sions of not just the left but young­er, more ideal­ist­ic voters. He is the new, shiny ob­ject (though six years older than Clin­ton), prom­ising an ideal­ist­ic world with no col­lege tu­ition and Medi­care for all. Good luck try­ing to ex­plain to his fans that Sanders’s pro­pos­als are totally un­real­ist­ic and fin­an­cially un­ten­able.

But hav­ing said all of that, and no mat­ter what happened in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, Sanders is not go­ing to be the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee. He fought Clin­ton to a vir­tu­al tie Iowa and will likely do com­par­ably well in most of the oth­er 14 caucus states. The caucus pro­cess in­her­ently fa­vors strongly ideo­lo­gic­al can­did­ates be­cause they have the most pas­sion­ate sup­port­ers. After all, few nor­mal people both­er to at­tend caucuses in Iowa or any­where else, as a com­par­is­on of turnout in caucuses and elec­tions shows.

Sanders won New Hamp­shire by a huge mar­gin and will likely win most if not all of the oth­er five New Eng­land states (Maine is a caucus state). But it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that the states with caucuses tend to be small. Col­or­ado, Min­nesota, Wash­ing­ton state and Iowa are the largest. New Eng­land states are small as well; Mas­sachu­setts is the only state in the re­gion of any real size. Put it all to­geth­er, as my col­league Dav­id Wasser­man has poin­ted out, a can­did­ate win­ning 100 per­cent of all caucus and New Eng­land del­eg­ates would still only have 36 per­cent of the del­eg­ates needed to win the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion.

While there is ob­vi­ously no na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic primary, the na­tion­al polls do give an in­dic­at­or of what is down the road. A re­cent Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll, which showed Clin­ton’s na­tion­al ad­vant­age over Sanders down to 44 to 42 per­cent, got a great deal of me­dia cov­er­age. But it should be poin­ted out that she leads widely in polls taken since the first of the year by large news or­gan­iz­a­tions: ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post (+19), CBS/New York Times (+7), CNN (+14), Fox (+12) and NBC/Wall Street Journ­al (+25).

On March 1, Sanders will likely win Mas­sachu­setts and Ver­mont. The Col­or­ado and Min­nesota caucuses will prob­ably be close, but give Sanders the ad­vant­age. The out­look is less pro­pi­tious for him in the Alabama, Arkan­sas, Geor­gia, Ok­lahoma, Ten­ness­ee, and Vir­gin­ia primar­ies.

Then there are su­per del­eg­ates, in oth­er words, the es­tab­lish­ment. All con­gress­men, sen­at­ors, gov­ernors, state chairs and na­tion­al com­mit­tee mem­bers are su­per del­eg­ates, and very few sup­port Sanders. The cur­rent su­per del­eg­ate count is 362 for Clin­ton to eight for Sanders, with 342 out­stand­ing. In short, it’s tough to see Sanders win­ning 2,383 del­eg­ates, which is a ma­jor­ity of the 4,764 who can vote at the con­ven­tion.

What should be more con­cern­ing for Clin­ton back­ers is the gen­er­al elec­tion.

Demo­crats and lib­er­als are not her prob­lem. In the Janu­ary NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al na­tion­al poll, Clin­ton was viewed pos­it­ively by 71 per­cent of Demo­crats, neut­rally by 15 per­cent and neg­at­ively by 14 per­cent, a net plus of 57 points.   Among lib­er­als, 65 per­cent have a pos­it­ive im­pres­sion of her, 10 per­cent were neut­ral, and 25 per­cent were neg­at­ive, a net plus of 40 points.  

Pre­dict­ably just sev­en per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans view Clin­ton pos­it­ively, five per­cent have neut­ral feel­ings, 88 per­cent see her neg­at­ively, a net minus of 81 points. Sim­il­arly, 16 per­cent of con­ser­vat­ives have pos­it­ive feel­ings to­ward her, sev­en per­cent were neut­ral, and 76 per­cent were neg­at­ive, a net minus of 60 points.

That leaves in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates. She is in big trouble with in­de­pend­ents. Just of 35 per­cent had a pos­it­ive view of her, 11 per­cent were neut­ral, and whop­ping 54 per­cent were neg­at­ive, a net minus of 19 points. Mod­er­ates were 44 per­cent pos­it­ive, 13 per­cent neut­ral, and 43 per­cent neg­at­ive, a net plus of one point, well with­in the mar­gin of er­ror. By com­par­is­on, in the last gen­er­al elec­tion, Obama lost in­de­pend­ents by five points but won mod­er­ates by 15 points.

So how would Clin­ton do in the gen­er­al elec­tion.  An old joke comes to mind. A wo­man is asked how her hus­band is, and she replies, “com­pared to what.”  The an­swer to how would Clin­ton do in the gen­er­al elec­tion comes down to “com­pared to whom.”  Against a non-po­lar­iz­ing Re­pub­lic­an, Clin­ton would have a real chal­lenge with in­de­pend­ents and mod­er­ates.  Against a highly con­tro­ver­sial Re­pub­lic­an, it might be more of a fair fight.  

In con­ver­sa­tions with Demo­crats, I found them gravely con­cerned about the gen­er­al elec­tion be­cause of the di­vi­sions in their party. In sim­il­ar talks with Re­pub­lic­ans, who are also frag­men­ted, I found them really wor­ried about Novem­ber as well. The truth is, each side has a lot to worry about.

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