Should Democratic Candidates Care About Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Timeline?

Long-lasting question marks around a possible Clinton presidential run could leave Democrats unprepared for 2016.

Hillary Clinton at a news conference at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute on July 23, 2014 in Oakland, California.
National Journal
Emma Roller
July 30, 2014, 4:59 p.m.

Writ­ing about the choice in front of Hil­lary Clin­ton — a hard choice, if you will — is like an ad­vanced course in hy­po­thet­ic­als.

Try­ing to di­vine the strategy for Clin­ton’s an­nounce­ment is like graph­ing a Pun­nett square with two vari­ables. The first vari­able: Will she or won’t she run? The second: Will she an­nounce her de­cision early on, or take her sweet time?

Either way, Clin­ton’s de­cision is sure to de­light some Demo­crat­ic politi­cians and sty­mie oth­ers. If she an­nounces her can­did­acy too early, that opens the floodgates to con­ser­vat­ive at­tacks. Dia­met­ric­ally, if she an­nounces late in the game that she is not go­ing to run, oth­er Demo­crats who were wait­ing on her go-ahead may find it’s too late to build up their own cam­paigns.

It’s un­likely that Clin­ton will an­nounce early either way, which leaves us with two op­tions. Op­tion one: She an­nounces late that she is run­ning, thus con­firm­ing the idea every­one has been tak­ing for gran­ted for at least the past six months, and sink­ing every oth­er Demo­crat’s hopes of run­ning a com­pet­it­ive cam­paign. Op­tion two: Clin­ton an­nounces in early 2015 that no, she’s not run­ning — thus ren­der­ing the months of think pieces totally use­less, and open­ing up the nom­in­a­tion to someone you’re likely not think­ing too much about.

If Clin­ton de­cides not to run, it could be an enorm­ous boon to one of her fel­low Demo­crats in par­tic­u­lar. Ac­cord­ing to Steve McMa­hon, a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign vet­er­an and the cofounder of the polit­ic­al con­sult­ing firm Purple Strategies, Clin­ton’s un-can­did­acy would all but open the door for Demo­crat­ic Nom­in­ee Joe Biden, and the vice pres­id­ent wouldn’t hurt for lack of setup time.

“It’s hers to lose if she wants it, but she may not want it,” McMa­hon said. “If she doesn’t run, then there will be a big field, but the longer it takes for the field to ma­ter­i­al­ize, the weak­er every­body in it — ex­cept Joe Biden — will be.”

This the­ory, of course, dis­counts the fact that while there is a fledgling “Run, Liz, Run” move­ment there’s no “Ready for Joe” move­ment yet. A re­cent CNN poll found that 67 per­cent of likely Demo­crat­ic voters would vote for Clin­ton, with Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren and Biden each trail­ing her by at least 50 points. War­ren re­ceived 10 per­cent to Biden’s 8 per­cent.

But what a Biden can­did­acy lacks in grass­roots en­thu­si­asm would be more than made up for with a well-oiled cam­paign ap­par­at­us.

“There’s no bar­ri­er for him,” McMa­hon said. “He’s vice pres­id­ent, he’s run be­fore, he would in­her­it the bulk of the Obama cam­paign ma­chinery and people, and he would be run­ning 60 miles an hour while every­body else was put­ting on their track shoes.”

One Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant noted that the 2016 cycle is odd be­cause of the lack of Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates who are at least openly flirt­ing with run­ning at this stage.

“It’s very strange that in 2014, you don’t see any of that,” the con­sult­ant, who asked to be quoted an­onym­ously be­cause of work with po­ten­tial can­did­ates, said. “And I think it’s be­cause many na­tion­al Demo­crats are afraid that it will look like they are po­s­i­tion­ing them­selves against Clin­ton.”

The gen­er­al at­ti­tude of the Demo­crat­ic Party leaves Clin­ton in an en­vi­able po­s­i­tion.

“I think it’s in her best in­terest to wait,” the con­sult­ant said. “That doesn’t mean it’s in the best in­terest of the Demo­crat­ic Party.”

Steve McMa­hon agrees. “Giv­en the level of or­gan­iz­a­tion that’s popped up around her, she cer­tainly isn’t harmed by wait­ing,” he said. “If I were Hil­lary Clin­ton, I would be in ab­so­lutely no hurry to de­cide or an­nounce what I’m do­ing. If I were some­body else who wants to run for pres­id­ent, I would be des­per­ate to get an an­swer from her as quickly as pos­sible.”

That des­per­a­tion has left Demo­crats (and polit­ic­al re­port­ers) look­ing for any tell-tale dog whistles from Clin­ton — trav­el­ing to Iowa or New Hamp­shire, for in­stance. But Clin­ton has been wary not to send any sig­nals.

Mean­while, oth­er na­tion­al Demo­crats have used their star power in loc­al races. War­ren re­cently head­lined a New Hamp­shire fun­draiser for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley has cam­paigned for can­did­ates in New Hamp­shire and Iowa.

But War­ren’s cam­paign work and her rising star in the party — des­pite her oft-re­peated deni­al that she is run­ning for pres­id­ent — are noth­ing com­pared with Clin­ton’s repu­ta­tion among the well-heeled Demo­crat­ic donor base. As one New York donor re­cently told the Daily Beast, “If Eliza­beth called me up and said, ‘I am think­ing of run­ning for pres­id­ent,’ I would say, ‘Eliza­beth, are you out of your [ex­plet­ive] mind?’ “

Mi­chael Mc­Curry, a former press sec­ret­ary to Bill Clin­ton, said the pres­sure for Clin­ton to an­nounce her run could be rat­cheted up, de­pend­ing on the out­come of the midterm elec­tions.

“If Demo­crats lose the Sen­ate in Novem­ber, then every Demo­crat will be­lieve that a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent is all that stands between a GOP Con­gress and re­vers­ing some of the pro­gress made in the last gen­er­a­tion or so,” Mc­Curry said in an email. “Be­cause if she is NOT run­ning, then someone needs time and op­por­tun­ity to build to her level of na­tion­al sup­port and name re­cog­ni­tion.”

Joe Trippi, a vet­er­an of Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, says oth­er Demo­crats who want to run shouldn’t hold their breath wait­ing for Clin­ton.

“There are plenty of people like Mar­tin O’Mal­ley who are out there, go­ing to Iowa, go­ing to New Hamp­shire, put­ting the fun­drais­ing struc­ture in place if they de­cide to go,” Trippi told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “And if some­body isn’t do­ing that be­cause they think Hil­lary Clin­ton’s run­ning … then they de­serve to lose.”

Clin­ton has said she would make her an­nounce­ment (and de­lete the “TBD” line from her Twit­ter bio) in “early 2015.” But what does his­tory say about when can­did­ates are likely to get in­to the race?

The New Hamp­shire primary — the first pres­id­en­tial primary in the coun­try — is of­ten used as a bench­mark for when can­did­ates should throw their hat in­to the ring. Be­fore 1972, no pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees de­clared their can­did­acy un­til roughly six months, or 200 days, be­fore the New Hamp­shire primary. But since 1996, each party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee has an­nounced his can­did­acy earli­er, ahead of that six-month mark. In 2008, both John Mc­Cain and Barack Obama an­nounced their can­did­a­cies more than 300 days ahead of the New Hamp­shire primary.

Some per­spect­ive: We are still more than 500 days out from the New Hamp­shire primary, which will take place on Jan. 26, 2016. So, go­ing by the 300-day bench­mark, Clin­ton has un­til roughly April 2015 to an­nounce her de­cision — at least. That could mean eight more ex­cru­ci­at­ing months for pun­dits and waff­ling Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates alike.

But Clin­ton could just as eas­ily wait longer to an­nounce her de­cision and draw out the sus­pense. And why not? She has every reas­on to take her time an­noun­cing a de­cision, and hold off the in­ev­it­able oppo-ava­lanche.

“I don’t think there are really any real polit­ic­al con­sequences to her for wait­ing,” Trippi said. “In fact, I think it’s to her ad­vant­age to wait as long as she wants.”

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