We're two weeks from the first Democratic debate and to be honest with you, I can't tell right now if we are underestimating Hillary Clinton's weakness, or her strength.
It isn't exactly conventional wisdom, but the conventional swerve is that Clinton is incredibly vulnerable. Because I'm a born contrarian, this automatically makes me wonder if people are now overestimating her weakness the way they overestimated her inevitability just six months ago. And then there's Joe Trippi--one of the few campaign analysts who is always worth listening to--who makes the case that Clinton is much stronger than she looks. Here's Trippi:
Clinton's 2008 campaign made the fatal error of writing off caucus states as unimportant. She came in third in Iowa and barely reached 30% of the vote there. In total, caucus states cost her 100 delegates in a race she lost to Barack Obama by fewer than 300. The fact is her campaign will not make that mistake again. Clinton has recruited the best caucus organizers in the Democratic Party. She will be stronger in Iowa and gain far more delegates in caucus states in 2016...
Sanders may hold the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, but those states have never decided who the Democratic nominee will be; they merely winnow the field. Two or three candidates emerge out of those two states to fight for the nomination across the country. Right now, it looks as if Clinton and Sanders will be those two candidates. If Biden enters the race, three will make it. The candidate suffering from Sanders' strength and speculation about Biden is not Clinton, it's Martin O'Malley, who might otherwise have captured the "not Clinton" vote...
To believe that Sanders or even Biden can defeat Clinton, you have to believe they can run as well against her (after the first two contests) as Obama did. The obstacles to pulling that off are significant.
First, 56% of Democratic voters are women, who prefer Clinton to her rivals. And unlike Obama, who held Clinton to just 20% of the nonwhite vote through much of 2008, Sanders is trailing Clinton by 40 to 60 points among nonwhite Democrats. Pundits seem to enjoy questioning Clinton's ability to energize the Obama coalition, but Sanders hasn't been able to get out of the teens in terms of support among blacks or Latinos. Biden fares better, but he's not Obama either.
Clinton leads Biden by 27 points and Sanders by 34 points in South Carolina, where Obama defeated her by 28 points. She leads them both by 32 points in Florida, where she defeated Obama despite exit polls showing he had won 75% of the black vote. (Sanders or Biden will be lucky to get 50% of the black vote against Clinton.)
Trippi's argument fits with my long-standing view that the Democratic race was always likely to tighten-and that Clinton has real vulnerabilities as a candidate-but that it would take a special opponent—Elizabeth Warren or Deval Patrick, perhaps—to have a better-than-even-money chance of wresting the nomination from her.
Which is why the real threat Bernie Sanders has always posed to Clinton isn't that he'd win the nomination, but that he'd expose her enough to lure one of the big dogs into the ring.
So maybe Clinton is actually in a more dominant position right now than you think.
On the other hand what if Clinton is even weaker than she appears? For instance, try this on for size:
Right now, Clinton leads Sanders 41 to 28 in the RealClearPolitics uber-poll of polls. (Joe Biden sits at 20 percent.) Pretty formidable, right? Except, on September 30, 2007, Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama 40 to 23. So she's actually in worse shape now than she was eight years ago when she lost the nomination.
Obama's eventual victory in the primary fight was powered by African-American voters, but what gave him a foot-hold with liberal white Democrats was his stance on Iraq, where he had had the luxury of having been "against" the war back when he had no real political responsibilities.