Friday, June 13, 2014

If Not Hillary, Then Who?

At this point, despite claims no decision has been made, it certainly seems as though Hillary Clinton is planning on running for President.  I’ve written before that she is in an extremely strong position to win the White House in 2016, should she run.  This is partly due to demographics; in 2016, the electorate will be more black and Hispanic than in 2012.  Democrats run well with these two key groups; President Obama won more than 70% of the Latino vote in 2012 and upwards of 95% of the African American vote. 

All this would lead one to believe that any Democrat could win the White House.  But we are forgetting two other voting blocs: independents and women.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, should she run, Clinton will likely dominate among women voters.  There is a huge pent-up demand for a woman president, and, fairly or unfairly, a woman candidate (on either side) would likely reap those benefits. 

And what do independents want?  One could argue they want change.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean changing parties.  It could simply mean they want a change in the type of President occupying the Oval Office.  In 2016, that will most likely translate to voters wanting someone with a bit more experience under his or her belt.  There are some Republicans who would fit that bill, so it is not as if Clinton will run away with that vote. 

Independent voters also want someone who can deliver results.  It isn’t clear Clinton will necessarily benefit from this.  While her husband oversaw a booming economy and the 90’s are generally regarded as a time of prosperity, Hillary herself may not get that credit.  Further, Bill Clinton’s presidency was not without intense partisan battles, of which is something independents are certainly tired. 

So if Hillary decides not to run, who would take her place as the Democratic standard bearer in 2016?  There are certainly people waiting in the wings, but can they win in November? Can they even get the party’s nomination?  Let’s examine each contender.

Joe Biden:  The most obvious alternative to Hillary at this point is the current Vice President.  It is highly unusual that a sitting Vice President is polling as poorly as he is against a potential challenger (Clinton), but most polls have ‘Uncle Joe’ barely breaking into double digits.  Despite that, in nearly every poll, he is still in second among Democratic primary voters. 

Therefore, he would probably benefit most if Clinton doesn’t run, right?  Hold the phone.  While polls show (and there are limited polls that ask this question) that currently Biden would be the second choice of most primary voters, that assumes other Democratic candidates’ name recognition would not increase over the next two years. 

As it stands, most primary voters know little to nothing about potential candidates like Mark Warner, Brian Schweitzer, Andrew Cuomo, and Martin O’Malley.  Even Elizabeth Warren, the firebrand liberal from Massachusetts, is relatively unknown in the broader Democratic electorate.  Biden’s support would likely drop precipitously after other candidates were able to connect with the electorate. 

But let’s assume that Biden could win the primary.  Could he win a general election?  In this case, the candidate certainly would matter.  Jeb Bush or Chris Christie would likely mop the floor with Biden.  Even Rand Paul would probably win against Old Joe.  Unless the economy begins to vastly improve, I cannot see Biden winning a general election against anyone but perhaps Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin.

Martin O’Malley:  The current Governor of Maryland has not shied away from suggesting he may run, with or without Clinton in the mix.  O’Malley certainly seems to align with Democrats on all the right issues.  His state was one of the few to pass stricter gun laws in the wake of Sandy Hook and he led the effort in his state to pass a referendum on same sex marriage, among other things. 

But it just seems, despite all that, as if O’Malley elicits zero excitement from the base.  Excitement is what wins primaries.  Is he hampered by being just another boring white guy?  Or has he just not done a good job raising his national profile in a way that can get Democrats envisioning him as President?  I think it is more of the latter than the former.  Which means that O’Malley has about six more months to find a way to introduce himself. 

Could he win in a general election? Yes, but he’d be no lock to win.  Being relatively unknown is a double edged sword.  O’Malley has already proved that he isn’t great at introducing himself to the electorate, so Republicans could possibly more easily define him.  However, something he has going for him is that he is not attached to the Obama administration.  He is a two term Governor, and he is fairly young (would be 53 at the time of the election).  Voters have picked the younger candidate in every election since 1992. 

Andrew Cuomo:  Governor O’Malley and Governor Cuomo are often listed in the same breath, probably due to them each being governors in the Northeast and both of them having expressed interest in running for President.  They even have similar accomplishments while in office.  Both passed stricter gun-control laws and both passed same sex marriage. 

Where Cuomo breaks out is in name recognition and money.  New York is the media and money capital of America.  Not only does Cuomo benefit from his father being a popular New York Governor in the 80s and 90s, but also from having much of the press focus on him, though that could be a double-edged sword.  Further, Cuomo has a good relationship with Wall Street, which would no doubt help with his fundraising.

Governor Cuomo, while more moderate than the party as a whole, would stand a very good shot of getting the nomination and even winning in the general election.  He doesn’t have much baggage and is well liked in New York even by Republicans.  Cuomo has a track record of working with both sides of the isle to achieve results.  Traditional liberals may not love him, but he would be a good fit for independents. 

Brian Schweitzer:  If the left wants its own version of Chris Christie, they will be happy with Schweitzer.  The former two-term governor of Montana is brash and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.  On issues, he doesn’t fit well into a traditional “liberal” or “conservative” box.  He is pro-coal, pro-fracking/drilling, and seems to have more conservative views on gun rights.  But the governor has also been a leader in pushing for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar and has recently endorsed same-sex marriage.  He talks often about the need for a living wage, an issue that could become prominent by 2016.

In terms of the primary, Schweitzer would almost certainly be viewed to be the more conservative candidate.  Primaries are usually dominated by the more extreme of each party, liberal or conservative.  Therefore, unless he were to be able to bring a large number of independents to the voting booth as Barack Obama did in 2008, Schweitzer would have a very hard time winning.  However, if liberals were to not coalesce around one candidate, Governor Schweitzer could win a plurality of the vote by letting the other candidates split the liberal bloc.

Schweitzer seems like he would be a fairly decent general election candidate.  While Governor, he was focused on results and was not afraid to be brash to get his positions heard.  He would likely do well in western states like Nevada and Colorado and could even bring his home state into the Democratic fold (he left with a greater than 60% approval rating).

Mark Warner:  Senator Warner has not ruled out running for President.  The extremely well-liked former-Governor-turned-Senator of Virginia certainly looks the part.  However, Warner’s task will be to differentiate himself from other candidates.  He is younger than Biden, but about the same age as O’Malley and Cuomo.  He is more soft-spoken than Schweitzer, yet is not really well known for anything among Democrats.  Further, he is undeniably attached to the current President; he has voted with Obama 97% of the time.

Now, that may not be a death knell in the Democratic primary, but unless independent voters begin to warm again on the current President, Democrats might not want to nominate someone so closely associated with the administration.  That being said, Warner will likely handily win re-election in the purple state of Virginia this year, even with his record.  And in 2016, he would almost certainly bring Virginia and likely even neighboring North Carolina with him. 

Below is a map (courtesy 270towin) showing what a probable Warner-GOP matchup would look like.  With Warner holding all Obama states that the President won by greater than 5%, plus adding Warner’s home state of Virginia, he is winning with 285 electoral votes.  Yes, it is possible, with the right nominee, the GOP could pick off one of the more democratic states such as Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin, or New Hampshire, but it is equally as likely that Warner would carry at least one of the remaining swing states.  Warner could be a formidable general election candidate, but he would have to win a crowded primary first.

Elizabeth Warren:  Ahh, the darling of liberals.  Besides Hillary herself, there has not been more speculation over any other candidate than the Harvard professor-turned-Massachusetts Senator.  The talk of her running has only intensified since her book, “A Fighting Chance” went on sale just last month.  Warren has repeatedly said the words, “I’m not running for President”.  That could be interpreted in two different ways.  One way, the way I think she would like us to interpret it, is that she will not run for President in 2016.  The other way, and the interpretation I read, is that she is not currently running.  I believe she is holding the door open in case Hillary doesn’t run. 

She has already publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, so she clearly won’t run against her.  But if Clinton decides not to run, there will be a huge desire for a true progressive, and even more so a woman, to seek the nomination.  I certainly believe Warren would take that torch and run with it, given the chance. 

How would she do in a Democratic primary?  She would likely win it.  She would be the candidate activists flock towards.  The biggest holdouts would be the more conservative wing of the party.  However, that wing has been getting progressively (no pun intended) smaller since President Obama took office in 2009.  Democrats want a passionate progressive, not a passive one, as Obama has been.  

What would likely be an easy nomination (relative to 2008) could end up being a very difficult general election, however.  Warren is unabashedly liberal, but the country as a whole is not.  In a recent poll recording ideology of Americans, Gallop found that only 23% of Americans identified as ‘liberal’ while 38% called themselves conservative. 

That isn’t to say that Warren could not win a general election.  She is very passionate about her beliefs, and that is also something that Americans like in a candidate.  But her path to 270 would likely be a bit narrower than someone with more broad appeal, such as Clinton or Warner.  Southern states in which Democrats have been trying to compete in recent years, like North Carolina and Georgia, would likely be off the table.  Similarly, if Warren is framed as an elitist liberal, more working class states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania could become tossups.  It is a risk the party would need to weigh.

Bernie Sanders:  I’m not convinced Bernie Sanders would actually run.  Though he’s the same age as Vice President Biden, he looks and sounds much older.  His reason for getting in the race would not be to win, but to drive the debate to the left.  I don’t honestly see much of a path for him to getting the nomination.  He is certainly a liberal’s liberal.  He even describes himself as a socialist. 

Despite America being partially socialized since the 1930s, Americans still have a very negative reaction to the word.  He would have almost zero chance of winning a general election, given his views and his age, and the Democrats would not risk nominating him. 

So who wins the nomination should Clinton not run?  As I said before, my bet would be on Warren.  Progressives in the party see her as 2016’s Obama.  Though she may not have the establishment’s support, the primary system would likely work in her favor.  With Iowa as a caucus state, turnout is lower and therefore leans more liberal.  New Hampshire would be a likely win for the Senator of neighboring Massachusetts.  After gaining momentum from those states, she would need to do well enough in the other early states to sustain her momentum going into Super Tuesday.  Really, her path looks much like Obama’s did in 2008, except that no one else is nearly as strong as Clinton was in that year.

Have I left anyone out?  Do you feel I have overestimated Elizabeth Warren or underestimated someone else?  Sound off in the comments section below!