Hillary Clinton is back in the news, facing questions about her health and lingering doubts about what exactly happened in the aftermath of the Benghazi terror attack. Meanwhile, some Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont most notable among them—have been making noises about challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination. In light of the fact that Clinton was the overwhelming frontrunner at this point in the 2008 cycle, such events cannot be overlooked. It’s a fair question to ask: Is Clinton really as strong as she appears for the 2016 Democratic nod?
In a word: yes. While she’s unlikely to go unchallenged, the landscape favors her overwhelmingly.
The rules of the two parties’ nominations systems are virtually identical, but since their coalitions are different, the dramas play out differently. On the Republican side, voters tend to be demographically similar, and the main question is ideological, with candidates squaring off over economic, foreign, and cultural issues. On the Democratic side, there are substantial demographic differences, and the interplay of race, gender, and socioeconomic status has often been determinative.
So to get an early read on the 2016 Democratic battle, one can start by looking at the groups that make up the Democratic party. Who are they, and whom might they support? First, the party has a substantial and growing minority population. Barack Obama’s coalition in 2012 was 45 percent nonwhite, compared to 35 percent in 2008 and 27 percent for Bill Clinton in 1996. Within the nonwhite population, Latino and African-American voters have been known to back different candidates.
After that, there is the union vote. Historically, it was dominated by industrial and craft unions. Think of Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers vetoing Jimmy Byrnes for the vice presidency in 1944. Nowadays, though, the service and government unions really matter, while the old-style unions are virtual nonentities.
Then there is the socially upscale, usually white liberal vote: university professors, government and nonprofit workers, college students, and so on, who are very interested in causes like abortion and environmentalism.
Next, there are a class of voters whom we might call the “Robert Rubin Democrats.” Well-heeled, culturally and economically influential, their votes do not matter as much as their checkbooks.
Finally, there is the so-called white working class. Socioeconomically downscale whites have been trending Republican since the 1960s, but this bloc remains important in Democratic presidential politics, especially in the Ohio River Valley.
In the 2008 battle with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton won Latinos and the white working class overwhelmingly. She lost black voters overwhelmingly and liberal whites by a good margin. She split the unions and the Robert Rubin Democrats. Importantly, her coalition was probably large enough to win, had she run a better campaign. Obama’s victory among pledged delegates was a scant 127 out of a total of 3,424. His entire margin of victory rested upon his superior organization of low-turnout caucus states like Idaho and Maine, where Clinton’s potential coalition was probably stronger. So, assuming that Team Clinton learns the rules of its own party this time around, a would-be challenger will actually have to build a bigger coalition than Obama’s.
Moreover, recent polling on the race has indicated that African Americans are inclined to support Clinton in 2016. Furthermore, the moneyed party donors look pretty well unanimous. For instance, Hollywood bigshot David Geffen supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, but this time around looks set to go with Clinton.
So where do the potential Clinton challengers stand in relation to the Democratic electorate? Can any of them hope to cobble together a coalition that can challenge Clinton’s? Let’s take each in turn.
A Beltway fixture for more than 40 years, Vice President Joe Biden lacks much of an electoral bond with any Democratic constituency group. He could poach some of Clinton’s white working-class vote and raise some cash from Wall Street, but it is hard to see him breaking through.
Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont could both play effectively to upscale white liberals; as a woman, Warren might attract some of the voters Clinton would otherwise win for identity-based reasons. Still, both would scare the bejesus out of Wall Street, where Democrats go to subsidize their anti-Wall Street demagoguery. And it is hard to see how either would have appeal for minority voters.
Former senator Jim Webb of Virginia and former governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana might attract the white working class, but the power of Bill Clinton to appeal to these voters cannot be overestimated. It is hard, too, to see how they would win over minority voters or raise substantial sums from wealthy Democrats.
What about Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York? He might raise substantial money, but who in the Clinton coalition would bolt for him? Ditto Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland.
That leaves two primary concerns for Team Clinton. The first is Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. As an African American, he would be a threat to Clinton with the black vote, which would virtually guarantee a real race. And he might be able to raise substantial money; it is no coincidence that in the last 26 years, Massachusetts has supplied 3 of the 10 nonincumbent major party nominees.
The other concern for Team Clinton would be an interactive effect amongst these candidates. Suppose, for instance, that Schweitzer, Patrick, and Warren all attracted significant support from their electoral bases, at Clinton’s expense. That scenario might be chaotic, and thus jeopardize Clinton’s path to the nomination. This would not be unprecedented in Democratic politics; something similar happened in 1976, 1988, and 1992, although in none of those instances was a candidate as strong a frontrunner as Clinton will probably be.
In the end, Clinton’s greatest advantage might be the continued political weakness of Obama. History is not on the side of the Democrats as they try to win the White House for a third consecutive term. A party has only done so once in the postwar era—in 1988, when Ronald Reagan’s job approval was in the mid-50s by Election Day. Currently, Obama’s is mired in the mid-40s. Yet Clinton has a personal reputation that might transcend Obama’s unpopularity, and she polls extremely well at the moment. So long as that continues, risk-averse Democrats of all demographic stripes might be inclined to put aside their internecine battle to prevent a Republican victory, something they all equally oppose.
None of this is to claim that Clinton is an objectively strong candidate. She manifestly is not; otherwise she would be president right now. But objectivity does not matter when you are battling for the nomination. Everything is relative to where your party stands in the public mind and where you stand in relation to the other candidates seeking nomination. Right now, both of these factors conspire to make Hillary Clinton the odds-on favorite for 2016.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.