WASHINGTON — It sounds like a bad joke from an old comedy routine. Question: How do you take on Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination? Answer: Very carefully.
Clinton is almost universally popular among Democrats as they look ahead to the 2016 race, with memories of her strong 2008 campaign enhanced by her work as secretary of state. If she runs again, she’ll have the most money in the bank, an experienced organization at her back and the emotional advantage of trying to finally achieve what many voters consider a long-overdue goal: the election of the first female president.
“Here’s a woman who’s been working 60-70 hours a week for the last four years, on some of the most difficult, complicated challenges we’ve had,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, often talked about as a 2016 Democratic contender, despite his denials of interest. “I think it would be very difficult to attack her.”
At this stage, it isn’t clear that anyone of stature will try. Just by announcing her candidacy, the governor predicted, “she’d clear a significant part of the field.”
An analysis of presidential polling shows that Clinton is in a stronger position than any non-incumbent Democrat of the modern era at this stage of the process. Her lead over potential rivals in polls, so far, exceeds Al Gore’s before the 2000 campaign, when he easily gained the nomination as a sitting vice president. What makes Clinton’s advantage even more impressive is that her nearest competitor in the early polls is the sitting vice president, Joe Biden.
There are other reasons to think that Democrats may have only a token nomination campaign were Clinton to run. The notoriously fractious party is more unified than at any time in decades. Differences over economic, cultural and national security policy are muted, if they exist at all. That absence of internal divisions would make it more difficult to assemble a coalition against Clinton. By comparison, in the bitterly fought 2008 race, Clinton’s support for the Iraq war presented a clear contrast with Barack Obama on an issue that divided and disconcerted Democrats.
Still, despite a recent spike in speculation that Clinton will be a candidate, the campaign is at least 18 months away. Seeds of internal dissension may already be germinating over issues such as the environment or government spending on social programs. Clinton’s age - she would turn 69 in 2016 - could help spark a generational fight for leadership of the party.
Veteran strategists warn against premature predictions. Often, the strongest potential candidate becomes much less invincible after the race begins. Although polls show that Clinton is even more popular today than she was going into the 2008 contest, it’s worth remembering that she was a heavy favorite then, too.
Clinton isn’t expected to make an announcement before next year’s midterm election, but her health is considered the most likely barrier to another campaign. She was sidelined for weeks last December by a blood clot in a vein near her brain, brought on, her aides said, when she struck her head after fainting. Biden, the only other prospective first-tier Democrat, is already positioning himself for a 2016 run, though Democratic strategists strongly doubt that he’d oppose her. Far behind is an assortment of governors and senators, none of whom has an established national presence.
But even a prohibitive favorite must go through the primaries. And that could create an opportunity for other ambitious Democrats.
“Securing the Democratic presidential nomination in the post-Obama era might be a far different proposition than it looks like today,” said Donna Brazile, a manager of the 2000 Gore campaign. For politicians with White House ambitions, 2016 will be “a great time to position yourself and help rebrand the Democratic Party,” she said.
She and other strategists play down the significance of claims, no doubt fanned by Clinton supporters, that major donors will stay parked on the sidelines until Clinton reveals her intentions. “There’s a lot of money out there,” Brazile said, pointing out that Obama relied on small donors to get his 2008 campaign off the ground and that his organization “morphed into one of the greatest machines ever.”
“The fact of the matter is, it’s going to be Hillary versus somebody, if she runs,” said Joe Trippi, who helped manage former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “The first problem is, how do you emerge as the other person in the race?” he said. “If you’re thinking about 2016, now is the time.”
Visibility is viability, the saying goes. One way to get noticed is to go after the front-runner. Running and losing, after all, isn’t the worst thing in a nomination contest. It can lead to a place on the ticket (as it did, most recently, for John Edwards in 2004 and Biden in 2008) or a Cabinet job. There is also valuable seasoning to be gained, preparing an unsuccessful candidate to make another try four or eight years later, as Clinton is poised to do now.
“It’s not necessarily the case that if you attack, you don’t get picked for vice president. Often it’s the best way to get there, as the last person standing and as the logical way to put the party together,” Trippi said.
From the standpoint of pragmatic politics, challenging one of the most admired women in America would seem to make little sense. A less risky approach for such candidates would be to set themselves apart by drawing differences over issues, advancing a compelling narrative or demonstrating an ability to appeal to a wide range of voters. That also has the added advantage of positioning a candidate to more easily pick up her supporters should Clinton decide not to run.
The basic advice for a presidential prospect is largely unchanged since Jimmy Carter created a new Democratic template 40 years ago: Lay the groundwork through repeated visits to the states that hold the initial delegate tests, gain visibility in local and national media, court potential donors across the country and, in a more recent development, establish and expand an online network of supporters.
“If you’re going to run for that office, generally you have to go out and give speeches, and form a PAC,” said Hickenlooper, the popular governor of the West’s biggest swing state.
Clinton, barely two months out of the State Department, is making moves that look a lot like what Hickenlooper described. She’s begun giving high-profile speeches, including recent remarks to a global women’s conference that were interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to her trying to break the glass ceiling. She’s done nothing to discourage a “super PAC” that aims to raise millions for a 2016 campaign with help from a growing number of long-time Clinton allies, including James Carville and Harold Ickes.
Hickenlooper said with a laugh that challenging Clinton would be “like running against an incumbent.”
But the governor was quick to say that he never discourages others from seeking elective office. “You can’t predict what happens, right? You can’t predict what issues will come up,” he said. “If you have a legitimate chance to run for public office, you’d be a fool not to.”
A presidential campaign, Hickenlooper said, offers a unique opportunity for a politician. It’s a chance to travel the country, meet a huge number of people and promote important ideas. “But that doesn’t mean that you should go out and run against Hillary Clinton for president,” he added.