How O'Malley Helps Clinton

The former Maryland governor could make her look like a moderate.

And in the left corner...

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Is Martin O’Malley going to do Hillary Clinton a favor?

Even though the former Maryland governor hasn't yet formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, he is picking up more publicity. This marginally improves his chances of consolidating the small pockets of opposition, and then of becoming the equivalent of a Bill Bradley who gets trounced once the voters get involved. 

There’s still no sign the Democratic nomination is up for grabs. By every standard, it’s a cakewalk for Clinton. She continues to pick up endorsements, and her polling position within the party (for what it's worth at this point) appears to be getting stronger. HuffPollster’s “less smoothing” setting, which is more sensitive to recent polls, has her up about six percentage points over the last two months.

That isn't a reliable metric for directly predicting voting, but it means that any Democratic party actors who may worry about the heightened scrutiny of Clinton and the Clinton Foundation won’t be feeling pressure from voters to consider jumping ship.

So how could O’Malley help Clinton? By continuing his strategy of appealing to liberals. Clinton, who as far as we can tell from polling is equally popular with all factions of the party, could receive a challenge from her left or right, but O'Malley is attacking her from the liberal side. The more that happens, the more she will be "framed" as a moderate, to use social-science lingo.   

This is a plus. The single most important campaign effect -- beyond fundamentals such as the economy, war and peace, and the president’s popularity -- is the damage caused when candidates are perceived to be ideological extremists.

So a barrage of reports about the “moderate” Clinton crushing the “liberal” O’Malley would make Clinton appear as a moderate. On the other hand, if O’Malley, who had an ideologically mixed record as governor, had chosen to run as a moderate, then Clinton’s victory would be portrayed a triumph for the party's liberal wing.

The same thing could happen on the Republican side. If the Republican primaries come down to, say, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker against Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, then the winner -- say Bush or Rubio or even Walker -- might wind up being perceived as the moderate, no matter how hard they try to appeal to conservative voters.

On the other hand, Clinton can hope that the Republican nominee winds up defeating a more moderate candidate, and thus comes off as very conservative. As for Clinton, so far it appears she will wind up with the best of both worlds: defeating an ideologically more extreme candidate (and therefore being "framed" as a moderate) without having to pander to liberals by taking positions that could hurt her in November.

It’s good to be the consensus nominee.

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