Hillary the field-clearer

When it comes to non-incumbent White House candidates, she really could break the mold if she runs

By Steve Kornacki

Published February 27, 2013 12:39PM (EST)

The latest round of conversation about Hillary Clinton’s impact on the 2016 Democratic landscape is playing out this week.

It started with a piece by Politico’s Jonathan Martin, who spoke with a number of Democratic governors in Washington last weekend and reported that there’s a “broad recognition” among them that Clinton could clear the field if she enters the race – or at least run as a front-runner like we’ve never before seen. That prompted Ed Kilgore to note that, historically speaking, there really hasn’t been such a thing as clearing the field, and that if nothing else Clinton will face “someone with a resume that commands at least minimal respect” should she run.

Kilgore’s point is well-taken, but as one who has actively promoted Clinton’s field-clearing potential, I’d argue that an even closer examination of the history of modern presidential nominating contests suggests the former secretary of state could potentially enjoy an easier path to the nomination than any non-incumbent who’s run.

The ’16 Democratic race will mark the fourth time since 1972, when rules changes empowered primary voters instead of convention deal-makers to choose each party’s nominee, that an open nomination will be created by the end of a two-term presidency. This has previously happened in 1988, 2000 and 2008 – and of these three examples, ’88 and ’00 seem to most relevant to understanding the ’16 Democratic picture. In ’08, morale in the incumbent party was exceptionally low, with voters turning hard against George W. Bush, to the point that his name was barely mentioned by any of the candidates vying to succeed him as the GOP nominee. It’s possible the Obama presidency will end similarly, but for now it’s safer to assume that he’ll be reasonably popular as his second term winds down and that there will be a fairly strong desire for continuity within his party. This was the case in ’88, as the Reagan presidency wore down, and in ’00, as Bill Clinton’s second term neared its end. Let’s consider how the nomination contests to succeed those two men took shape and played out:


The early favorite for the GOP nomination and “natural” heir to Reagan was Vice President George H.W. Bush. But Bush was an imperfect fit for the party’s base. Eight years earlier, he’d run to Reagan’s left in the primaries, supporting abortion rights and the ERA and ridiculing supply-side theory as “voodoo economics.” In a gesture to moderate Republicans, Reagan put Bush on his ’80 ticket, and Bush recognized that the Reagan crowd was rapidly becoming an overwhelming majority in the party. So he adjusted his views, served Reagan loyally and spent much of his vice presidency using his stature to convince conservative leaders they could trust him.

As ’88 approached, some readily jumped on board, but there was enough skepticism on the right for a number of ambitious conservatives to oppose Bush. Rep. Jack Kemp, author of the tax cut plan that Reagan had embraced in ’80 (and a man Reagan had been tempted to place on his ticket instead of Bush), tried to claim the Reagan mantle on economic issues. So did former Delaware Governor Pete du Pont, while televangelist Pat Robertson saw a chance to gobble up the millions of born-again Christians who’d been attracted to Republican politics in the Reagan years. Al Haig, whose stormy 18-month tenure as Reagan’s secretary of state ended in 1982, also jumped in, apparently hoping to run as the candidate of national security hawks. And Bob Dole, the Senate GOP leader and another failed ’80 aspirant, offered himself as a more accomplished version of Bush. Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, Reagan’s best friend in politics, also came close to running before backing off.

Bush ended up winning the nomination, but the road was bumpy. He suffered a humiliating third place finish in Iowa, where Dole capitalized on his prairie roots (“I’m one of you”) and a collapsed farm economy to win the lead-off caucuses and Robertson rallied the Christian right for a surprise second place showing. But Bush rallied in New Hampshire, thanks to strong support from the state’s GOP leadership and Dole’s refusal to sign a no-new-taxes pledge, which became the subject of a last-minute attack ad by the Bush campaign. The race then moved South with Bush re-established as the front-runner. He won a whopping victory in South Carolina, where he’d spent years cultivating Republican leaders (and where his campaign manager, Lee Atwater, was from), and then continuity kicked on. Super Tuesday in early March ’88 was dominated by primaries in the South, the most pro-Reagan region in the country, and in each contest support for Bush seemed directly related to voters’ feelings about the president. Against Dole, he’d proven himself good enough for the right. Bush went 16 for 17 on Super Tuesday and Dole was out of the race shortly thereafter.

There are three key takeaways from ’88: (1) Bush faced unusual skepticism from his party because he was so closely identified with a wing that no longer existed; (2) the incumbent president didn’t lift a finger to help his vice president in the primaries. Reagan remained neutral while the race was competitive and waited until May to endorse Bush; (3) for all of this, the power of the vice presidency still allowed Bush to build a financial and political organization that made him the clear favorite, and still helped him build enough goodwill to satisfy the party base.


Compared to the ’88 GOP race, the Democratic fight to succeed Clinton was orderly and drama-free. In the formative days of the campaign, Vice President Al Gore seemed at least potentially vulnerable. He’d first run for president as a hawkish conservative Democrat in 1988 and the Clinton administration had irked many liberals with its centrism and triangulation. Plus, there was the matter of the campaign fund-raising controversy that swirled around Gore in the aftermath of the 1996 campaign.

The biggest threat to Gore was supposed to come from Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, who’d positioned himself as the voice of liberal disgruntlement with the White House. Gephardt had voted against Clinton’s welfare reform law in ’96 and his balanced budget deal with the GOP in 1997 and had also maneuvered to deny the president fast-track authority for trade deals. In a speech in late ’97, Gephardt made noise by accusing the Clinton administration of focusing on “small ideas that nibble around the edges of big problems.” It seemed like a declaration of candidacy, and with his ties to labor and his strong network in Iowa, where he’d won the ’88 caucuses, Gephardt looked formidable.

Others eyed the race too. Paul Wellstone, another vote against welfare reform, tried to evoke memories of Bobby Kennedy by touring impoverished areas in the summer of ’98, teasing a grassroots-fueled challenge to Gore from the left. Nebraska’s Bob Kerrey, who’d lost to Clinton in ’92 only to spend the next eight years as a persistent thorn in his side, made the early rounds, as did John Kerry and Bill Bradley, who’d declared politics “broken” upon leaving the Senate in ’96. Jesse Jackson’s name was also in the mix.

But there wasn’t as much widespread distrust of Gore among the Democratic base as there had been about Bush among the GOP base 12 years earlier. Plus, Gore benefited from a White House that actively dedicated itself to boosting his prospects. In the summer of 1998, for instance, a meeting of policy leaders from across the party spectrum was convened, with First Lady Hillary Clinton leading an effort to re-unite the party around core principles: Social Security, education, healthcare. Gore worked the fund-raising and early primary state circuit relentlessly, and also played an unusually visible role on the midterm campaign trail in ’98, with Clinton stuck in Washington fending off impeachment (even as his approval rating soared to over 60 percent).

The result: When the would-be Gore challengers looked up at the end of ’98, they found themselves staring at unexpectedly long odds. Kerrey, for instance, commissioned a 300-page report on Gore’s weaknesses and potential routes to the nomination. Its conclusion: Gore’s advantages in money, endorsements, organization and popularity with the base made him an imposing frontrunner; beating him wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a real long-shot. So Kerrey took a pass. So did John Kerry, who was embarrassed to discover that Gore had made so many inroads in Massachusetts that he’d likely win more congressional endorsements from the state than Kerry. Gephardt, who ran 35 points behind Gore in an early’99 national poll, also stood down, citing a desire to win back the House in 2000 – an outcome that would have made him Speaker. Jackson and Wellstone also passed. In the end, only Bradley entered the race.

And only for a brief moment was it close. In the summer and fall of ’99, Bradley fared surprisingly well in fund-raising and early state polls. But his numbers plummeted in December and he was forced to downplay Iowa, where Gore won a convincing victory. A last-minute push brought Bradley within five points of a New Hampshire win, but the close call produced no momentum for him. In the next wave of contests five weeks later, he was crushed and dropped out of the race without winning a single primary or caucus – making Gore the only non-incumbent of the modern era to pull off a clean primary season sweep (a distinction that still stands).

* * *

At this point, at least, Clinton seems far better-positioned than Bush and even better positioned than Gore to run a continuity campaign. Unlike Bush, she doesn’t carry the baggage of being on the wrong side of a major party divide; she is a mainstream Democrat and has been one for her entire run as a national politician. And compared to where they were in the run-up to ’00, there really aren’t any major ideological fissures among Democrats now. There’s been some grumbling from liberal critics on various subjects (drones, Afghanistan, potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare), but overall Obama has remained very popular with Democrats – and with liberal Democrats in particular. Again, the next few years could bring some unforeseen split in the party or scandal that brings down Obama’s poll numbers, but from this vantage point, the appetite within the party for continuity in ’16 figures to be strong.

And Clinton would qualify as the candidate of continuity on multiple fronts. Her stature (and her husband’s, for that matter) gives her an obvious built-in advantage, and because she’s been a loyal member of the Obama administration, and the ill-will from their ’08 fight is an ancient memory now. In fact, as anyone in Charlotte this summer can attest, there’s a strong sentiment among many Democrats who favored Obama in ’08 to reward Clinton for being such a team player.

Plus, a concern that hindered her in ’08 – that, unlike Obama, she’d be too “polarizing” to win the general election and govern effectively – has been neutralized. The GOP’s reflexive and unyielding opposition to Obama has disabused Democrats of any notion that they can nominate and elect a candidate who will win acceptance from a large number of Republicans. The stratospheric poll numbers Clinton now enjoys will fall if she enters the race, with Republicans inevitably turning on her all over again. But her image among swing voters has unquestionably been enhanced over the last four years.  Her candidacy would also offer Democrats a chance to follow one historic breakthrough with another, replacing the first African-American president with the first female president. Even though Obama has a vice president who is interested in succeeding him, there’s no doubt that Clinton would run as the heir apparent – if she enters the race.

In the late ‘90s, Gore was able to build an imposing organization and secure enough commitments from party leaders and key donors to scare off just about every would-be opponent. It’s not a stretch to imagine Clinton doing the same. There aren’t many Democrats who believe Joe Biden will run if Clinton does, and there aren’t any who think Andrew Cuomo will if she does. Other names frequently mentioned, particularly would-be female candidates, would probably back down too. Sure, she might still face a challenger or two – someone credible enough to be considered a serious candidate. Brian Schweitzer, say, or maybe Martin O’Malley – someone eager to make a name, if nothing else. But there’d also be a strong incentive for would-be candidates to back out, join the Clinton bandwagon, and hope their loyalty will be rewarded with (say) a spot on the ticket.

I would say there’s a decent chance Clinton actually could clear the field and face no serious opposition for the nomination. Not a good chance, but a decent one. This has never happened for a non-incumbent in the modern era, but then again, it’s not like we’re dealing with a huge data set here. And Clinton really is approaching the ’16 race with a set of advantages we’ve never before seen for a non-incumbent. Yes, there’s plenty of time between now and Iowa – time for Clinton to stumble or take a pass on the race, time for Obama to really step in it, time for a real split to open up within the Democratic Party. I’m not calling Clinton a shoo-in for the nomination, or even predicting she’ll run. I’m just arguing that if she does, she could break the mold for non-incumbent candidates of the modern era.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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