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Clinton's Actually Pretty Good at This

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, full stop.

No, she didn’t formally clinch, and Bernie Sanders picked up victories in Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Vermont. But the overall numbers are clear. Clinton crushed Sanders in the states she figured to win, and has kept it close in most states she figured to lose. For example, FiveThirtyEight estimated she needed to win Virginia by 9 percentage points but she was winning by almost 30. In Georgia, she needed to win by 27 points, but she was ahead by more than 40; and in Massachusetts, Sanders needed to win by 11 but she won it narrowly. 

Large leads are difficult to overtake in the Democratic presidential race because strict proportional allocation of delegates means that even a slumping front-runner continues to get closer to locking up a majority. Nothing in the election returns to date, or polls of future states, or anything else indicates any nomination trouble ahead for Clinton. 

A lot of people underrate her as a politician. I suspect it’s because she isn’t good at delivering speeches. I can’t think of a major-party nominee in the video era (say, from 1952 on) who was significantly worse than she is at it, and most have been better, some by a lot. Her effort on Tuesday night was as pedestrian as usual. 

But public performance is only one part of what politicians do, and speeches are only a part of that. She’s good at other parts of public performance, including debates, one-on-one interviews and grillings by hostile congressional committees.  

And she has strengths we don’t see on the surface. No one just walks his or her way into a presidential nomination. She has earned it. Partly it was her success in cultivating strong ties with a wide variety of party actors: Some who supported her husband in the 1990s, some who had signed on for her in 2008, and still others who were new to her camp this time.

It isn’t just about building relationships. Clinton has expertly positioned herself right in the mainstream of where Democrats are on public policy, leaving little room for anyone to challenge her. The challenge, it turned out, came from the fringe left of the party. While Bernie Sanders turned out to appeal to many voters, there has not been enough room between him and Clinton for him to win significant support from organized groups or high-profile individuals within the party.

Yes, she has benefited because many Democrats are eager to put a woman in the Oval Office. But that’s the game. You use what you have, and you try to minimize the disadvantages you’re stuck with (and we know from experience and can see from some media coverage of her campaign that Running While Female has challenges too). Her husband presents both opportunities and problems -- this time around, at least so far, she has learned to exploit the former and limit damage from the latter.

When she has had trouble -- and all presidential candidates run into trouble -- virtually no one dropped her. No, parties can’t snap their fingers and automatically anoint nominees (as the Republican side demonstrates). But they not only can give a huge boost up to candidates the party actors favor; they also provide leeway for them when they stumble. The more the party is united behind a single candidate, the more those effects kick in.

All this matters less in general elections, simply because the individual nominee is far less important then than in primary elections. Despite the strong feelings so many have about her, she will likely enter that contest as a generic Democratic candidate.

And we can’t know for sure if the political skills we’ve seen so far would make her good at the job of president, if she gets the opportunity. All we know is that the great presidents were master politicians of one kind or another. And as we have just seen, Hillary Clinton is a very, very good politician.

  1. In each case, those targets are estimates of how the candidates would do in each state if the overall national contest was tied. Those estimates could be wrong, but so far (pending final numbers on Tuesday night) Clinton has beaten the target in every state, sometimes by large margins.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net