Why we'll (probably) know this month whether Hillary Clinton is running for president

If the former secretary of state intends to sit 2016 out, this is the time to announce it

Published December 4, 2014 4:48PM (EST)

 Hillary Clinton (AP/Cliff Owen)
Hillary Clinton (AP/Cliff Owen)

The official word from Hillary Clinton's camp is that she hasn't yet made up her mind about pursuing the presidency in 2016.

All signs, however, point to a second White House bid. The former secretary of state has been meeting with potential campaign managers, making forays into early-voting states, and collecting chits on the campaign trail. At this point, the days when Clinton firmly insisted that she'd never seek the Oval Office again are a faint memory. An announcement that Clinton will sit 2016 out would come as a shock to the political world.

Still, a number of factors could prompt Clinton to rethink whether she wants to spend the next two years frying steaks at the Iowa State Fair, staying in Holiday Inns, and braving the brutal winters of Iowa and New Hampshire. After leaving her apolitical role as secretary of state and reinserting herself into the rough-and-tumble of American politics, her favorability ratings have come back down to earth; no longer does she appear to be an unstoppable force. And last month's midterm elections, in which Republicans routed Democrats, could hardly have been encouraging. Core Democratic voters turned out in lower numbers -- and supported Democrats at lower levels -- than in 2008 and 2012. Turnout will undoubtedly increase in a presidential year, but it remains to be seen whether Clinton can keep the Obama coalition together. At any rate, the Republican victories underscored that a President Clinton would likely face a hostile Congress; while a Democratic takeover of the Senate in 2016 looks quite possible, Obama fatigue and deft early maneuvering by Republicans may yet keep the chamber in GOP hands.

So you could hardly blame Clinton for deciding to keep raking in the big bucks on the public speaking circuit, serving at her family's foundation, and doting on her newborn granddaughter. But if that's what Clinton would rather do, she'd need to make that clear soon -- as in, before the end of this month.

Here's why. With early polling showing her dominating the Democratic field -- and leading by a far larger margin than she ever did in the 2008 cycle -- observers see Clinton as the Democrats' prohibitive favorite for 2016. Other candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb and Martin O'Malley, appear undeterred and are running anyway, but few expect them to derail Clinton's path to the Democratic nomination. Indeed, O'Malley's case illustrates how Clinton has virtually frozen the Democratic field: While he's signaled that he'll enter the contest regardless of her plans, many Democratic insiders think that he's primarily positioning himself as a candidate who will be waiting in the wings in case Clinton decides not to run.

If candidates like O'Malley -- to say nothing of other formidable potential contenders, like Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Kirsten Gillibrand -- are to make strong bids in a Clintonless field, then they need to start revving up their engines now (or, more ideally, yesterday). Seeking the presidency requires long hours of pressing the flesh, cultivating donors, and building a national infrastructure. It's not particularly sexy or enjoyable, but it's essential to mounting a campaign with staying power. We likely won't see any candidates formally announcing campaigns until late this winter, but no candidate announces that they're in the moment they've decided; only after they've laid the groundwork and assessed the state of play do they take the plunge.

Clinton's early 2015 speaking schedule suggests that she may not declare her campaign until the spring -- much later than she announced in the 2008 cycle, when Clinton launched her ultimately unsuccessful bid in January 2007. If Clinton decides not to run -- but waits until March or April to say so -- then she'll have put the party in a pretty sorry place, with candidates scrambling to assemble the resources necessary to get up and running. It's hard to imagine that the Clintons haven't considered this, so if we hear word sooner rather than later, it's likely to mean that Clinton won't be running -- and other potential candidates will want to know by the time the new year rolls around, so they can be well-positioned when the time comes to make their own announcements. If, however, we hear no definitive announcement from Clinton this month, then her already high chances of entering the race will grow even higher.

By Luke Brinker

MORE FROM Luke Brinker