There are oodles of silly tropes in politics, but in the winter of 2014, this might be the silliest: “Hillary Clinton seems inevitable now, but wasn't she inevitable last time?” It's a blinkered way of viewing presidential politics, and the latest CNN/ORC International poll demonstrates why.
First, the numbers. CNN's poll, conducted right before Thanksgiving with a sample of “1,045 adult Americans,” finds the former secretary of state far ahead of the Democratic field in a national ballot test. Clinton's at 65 percent support among Democrats, followed by Senator Elizabeth Warren at 10 percent, Vice President Joe Biden at 9 percent, Senator Bernie Sanders at 5 percent, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Governor Deval Patrick and (the only candidate so far exploring a bid) former Senator James Webb at 1 percent, and Governor Martin O'Malley with support too low to calculate.
There is no National Primary. There's an Iowa caucus, where Clinton's 3rd place 2008 showing started the Obama wave, in large part by convincing black voters that the Illinois senator could win. But about the national poll—it shows a Clinton lead that has not diminished in what, the punditocracy decided, was a rotten year for her. Her book was outsold by Ben Carson's! Most of the candidates she stumped for lost! (They include the Democratic gubernatorial nominees in Warren's and O'Malley's states.) In November 2013, The New Republic's great Noam Scheiber published a cover story that pronounced Warren to be “Hillary's nightmare.” The November 2013 CNN poll found Clinton at 63 percent and Warren at 7 percent. After 13 months of hype, Democratic voters have remain unmoved: A supermajority of them favors Clinton.
How does this compare to the “inevitability” of 2008? Good question! In late November 2006, CNN polled “1,025 adult Americans” and came back with a ballot test. Clinton led with 33 percent; three other candidates were above 10 percent, stronger than Warren now.
It's just a national test, but the story's identical in the states—Clinton with swollen leads in New Hampshire and Iowa. In Iowa her numbers are better than twice as high as they were at this point in that cycle, when a war-skeptical Democratic electorate was desperate for another choice. You see why the discussion among the chin-strokers is about whether Clinton can remain so aloof from voters and still win the nomination. The press wants a race, and the left wants a race, but the Democratic electorate isn't sure that it needs one.