Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is hiring in Iowa and Vice President Joe Biden is keeping his options open.

Everyone's Running (Clinton Challengers Edition)

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.
Read More.
a | A

Finally, a Democratic presidential field beyond Hillary Clinton may be emerging. Well, it's a quasi-field, but it got one body larger today, with former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia talking about running on an anti-war platform.

We now have five of these possible anti-Clintons: Webb, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden. That's a lot!

Well, sort of. O'Malley is the most active. He is hiring in Iowa and doing pretty much everything an obscure but viable candidate can do at this stage. Sanders, and now Webb, aren't doing much beyond talking. Warren denies she is running even as she does candidate-like things, and is pointedly refusing to pledge that she won't run. And Biden is in a holding pattern: He's not organizing a real campaign, but has declared himself a potential candidate. We can't know how many of these Democrats will actually be running in 2016, or even in spring 2015.

Sanders and probably Webb would essentially be protest candidates. Their goal wouldn't be to to seize the nomination, but to affect the party's policy agenda. That's a tall order in the best of circumstances. A big part of being a protest candidate is losing, and why should the party move in the direction of the loser? If the front-runner is strong enough (or the protest candidate weak enough), the gambit can easily backfire. Democratic party actors might worry about anti-war sentiment among voters, but Clinton wins 90 percent of the Iowa vote, and Sanders or Webb get 10 percent, those fears won't last.

And Clinton has as strong a lock on the nomination as it's possible to have without a declared candidacy, actual endorsements and voters going to the polls. She also has the bulk of high-profile Democrats publicly expressing their backing in ways that are just short of an outright declaration of support. There's no way of knowing how firm those commitments might be, but if everyone who has hinted support stays on board, she's almost certainly unbeatable. If these backers are just parking in a Clinton-friendly zone while they wait and see what happens, the contest could move from a walkover to a toss-up very rapidly.

Suppose, for example, that O'Malley or Warren or some as-yet unknown Democrat scores a publicity coup, followed by a poll showing the theoretical nomination race narrowing significantly. That's when we would find out whether those Clinton-friendly Democratic party actors are really with her or if they're open to other choices.

The longer Clinton is able to preserve the status quo, however, the stronger her position will be as time runs out for serious opponent to organize. It's possible that she never gets tested, even if she is theoretically vulnerable.

Oh, and I should also mention the possibility that she drops out of the race.

But that's not likely to happen. Clinton is probably the strongest non-incumbent candidate for a presidential nomination in the (post-1968) history of the modern nomination process. Her only real rival is Al Gore in 2000. So the rest of the field is, as of now, little more than a footnote.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net