What a relief.

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Clinton '16: It's All Nonsense

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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So much nonsense to sort through on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

"Will she run?" She is running. She has been running for a long time. She may pretend she hadn't decided yet, for strategic or legal reasons or from actual ambivalence, but for now she's doing the things she needs to do to compete. To use nomination scholar Josh Putnam’s formulation:  She’s running for 2016, which is all anyone can know right now; whether she’ll be running in 2016 depends on lots of things, just as it does for any candidate.

Let’s put it another way: Practically every politician in the U.S. would accept a presidential nomination if it was handed to her. For most, the resources needed to compete are unavailable. For the one to three dozen plausible nominees, there are three considerations: how much they want the nomination, their perceived chances of getting it and how much they dislike going through the process.

The press focus on “Will X Run?” implies the action is all on the first and last of these, but those are constants for most politicians. What changes is the perceived chances of winning, as candidates begin running in the so-called invisible primary and reach more informed views of their odds. The stronger Clinton's chances get, the more likely she is to remain in the race.  This gets to the second part:

She was supposedly inevitable in 2007, too. Simply not true. Dave Weigel at Bloomberg Politics today shows the difference in Clinton’s polling eight years ago (when she was leading a hotly contested race) compared with now, when she’s dominant. But that’s nothing (ignore those polls!) compared with her apparent successes today in monopolizing the invisible primary.  

Some of her support could evaporate, but she reportedly has broad-based backing from party actors – the politicians, campaign and government professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and party-aligned interest groups who collectively settle on a nominee. In 2007, she shared that support with several other candidates. This leads to:

She isn't so strong -- it’s just that the field is weak. The Fix’s Aaron Blake made that case, and it’s totally wrong. There are always plenty of potentially strong candidates who choose not to run.  A Democratic field populated with Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Cuomo, Kirsten Gillibrand and others would have looked a lot like the 2016 Republican contest. Their polling numbers would have started weak but grown as they became nationally known. But they rightly perceive their chances of winning to be very low. So the field’s weakness is a reflection of Clinton’s strength, not the other way around.  Nevertheless, we're told:

She must “decide” soon. That’s what FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten says, but it’s wrong. See above: Candidacy decisions are gradual and readjusted, not one-time decisions. An informal announcement would only make Clinton's continuing campaign somewhat more official. But as long as party actors aren't pressuring her to make it official, she has no real reason for her to do it informally either. Both a formal declaration, which could happen as late as next fall, and informal announcements are best thought of as campaign strategies. Next assumption:

Opposition in the primaries and caucuses could hurt even if she prevails. Anne Gearon at the Washington Post is reporting what Clinton’s campaign is saying about the nomination process right now. If the strategists think this, however, they’re nuts: "Perhaps a bigger risk, they said, is that a savvy primary opponent with a sharply honed message or a fresh face could upstage her.”

Former Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland or Senator Bernie Sanders could have a good debate, or even possibly a decent showing in a primary. It doesn't matter at all. Swing voters won’t be tuning in until the conventions.  Strong enough competition could push Clinton to take positions she would rather not take (for the general election or, if she wins, for governing), but as of now she appears to have less pressure on her to do that than any non-incumbent in modern history.

Politics is never predictable. Clinton’s support might be far weaker than everyone has reported (they call it the “invisible” primary for a reason, and some of its complications could be eluding reporters). If that’s the case, and Clinton’s willingness to run is less than it appears to be, she could even drop out in the next few months. But from everything reported so far, the only reasonable conclusion is that she’s running and appears to have at least close to a lock on the nomination.

  1. There could be a fourth variable: their perceived gains and losses from a campaign that falls short of the nomination. Gains might include a perceived larger shot at the vice presidency or a national radio show; for incumbent politicians, losses might lead home constituents to punish them in their next re-election bid.

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:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net