Governor, you've got some stumping to do.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Clinton Support Has Nowhere to Go But Down

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I've long been bearish on Hillary Clinton. It isn't that I particularly dislike her; I don't, and there are certainly a number of presidential aspirants that I like less. I'm simply puzzled at what seems to be the conventional wisdom among Democrats I meet: that Clinton basically has a lock on the presidency, and the next 18 months are a tiresome formality we have to go through in order to set the right tone for her swearing in.

My bearishness had a bit of confirmation this week: a poll showed that Clinton had dropped from massive double-digit leads over plausible Republican presidential contenders to something more in the range of 1-3 points. Tempting though it is to leap on a single piece of data and declare victory, I will ruthlessly squash this primitive urge. It's a single poll, and others will likely show Clinton with more commanding leads in the near term.

However, I do think that Fred Barnes is right that as the polls narrow, we can expect to see some panic from the Democrats. By allowing Clinton to take the lion's share of the fundraising dollars and the media attention, the party has left itself without a plausible alternative candidate. That seemed dandy as long as she was easily trouncing Republicans in polls. But those polls were always going to narrow, because the early polls were basically measuring whether people recognized the candidate's name, not whether they were going to vote for her more than a year hence. As the GOP race sorts out, and the front-runners achieve more public awareness, you're going to see our highly partisan electorate lock into much narrower margins.

Moreover, Clinton will have less room to improve her margins than whoever the Republican is. The Clintons have been around for a long time, which is a help in many ways -- great name recognition, a beloved politician who can campaign for her, the ability to promise that the boom times under her husband will come back if only we give her our vote. But it also means that the public's ideas about Clinton are pretty well fixed. A scandal can drive them down, but they are not going to suddenly soar as the public finds her surprisingly more likable than they expected.

When Democratic voters and pundits start to suspect that this race is not, in fact, going to be the easy walk they were expecting, they will probably start to look harder at alternatives. Realistically, so far what they've got is ... Martin O'Malley, whose signature achievement as governor was hashing his state's Obamacare exchange so thoroughly that it had to be scrapped and replaced -- along with his hand-chosen successor, who lost to a Republican in a very blue state.

That doesn't mean that Clinton won't ultimately win, of course. But she's performing without a net, and as the polls narrow, the base will wake up to just how risky that is, even for a seasoned pro.

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:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net