Let's check in with the big 2016 news from last week: Jim Gilmore? He gone. From the CNN debate, that is. I expect he'll be formally gone from the race soon and whoever manages to scoop up his support will be in the driver's seat to Cleveland.
I kid, obviously. I'm dead serious, however, when I say that the next few weeks will likely determine the outcome of the Democratic nomination. Because Hillary Clinton is now in the zone of maximum danger.
It's never good when a candidate is being linked to an ongoing FBI investigation, as Clinton is with her private State Department email system. And you can see this in Clinton's poll numbers with Democratic primary voters: She's gone from 63 percent in late July to 49 percent today. She's not just sub-50 percent right now, but at her lowest ebb since a year ago and with a surging Bernie Sanders, who's at 25 percent and climbing. (Remember Barnes' First Law of Politics: All races tighten.)
All of which has, quite predictably, lured some other big Democratic fish into looking at the race. Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, the two most obvious heavyweights, are talking. There was even a moment when Al Gore was rumored to be thinking about getting in. (Pause, for a moment, to imagine a world in which Gore did run and howawesome it would have been to see Tipper come onstage at a Hillary rally.) I would be very surprised if Deval Patrick and John Kerry hadn't at least done some back-of-the-envelope math on possible campaigns.
And so now one of two things will happen. First, Clinton could keep the FBI at bay and sell the idea that this is all another partisan witch hunt. In this scenario, she scares off additional contestants for a short period of time-say, five weeks-at which point it becomes logistically impossible for someone to wage a serious campaign designed to beat her. If it's just her, O'Malley, and Sanders in the ring by the end of September, then she'll slug it out and probably win the nomination in a closer-than-expected fight. That's one possibility.
The other is that one of the aforementioned big guns does get in, at which point things get interesting. Republican races always pit two basic political factions against one another: the GOP establishment against actual conservatives. Democratic races have three factions: the party's establishment machine, ideological liberals, and people obsessed with identity politics.
The Democratic establishment isn't as powerful as its Republican counterpart, but it's plenty formidable. Howard Dean couldn't beat it with his ideological liberalism. Barack Obama was able to merge liberalism with identity politics, and he still nearly lost to the establishment machine, winning only because of Clinton's massive strategic error of not focusing resources on caucus states.
If Biden or Warren or Patrick gets in, then we could hae a three-way face off between each faction of the Democratic party – an epic, asymmetric showdown, like shark versus crocodile versus giant squid. At which point Clinton would step into the octagon with the outcome very much uncertain. And if Obama decides to weigh in and back one of the new challengers, things get even tougher for her.
This is an excerpt from Jonathan V. Last's free weekly newsletter. Sign up for it here.