Why it makes sense for Hillary Clinton to delay her 2016 campaign launch

New report suggests former secretary of state could wait until July to announce. Here's why that's smart

Published January 29, 2015 4:09PM (EST)

  (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Politico's Mike Allen reports this morning that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may not announce her expected presidential campaign until July, some three months later than most observers expected.

Although Clinton had planned to launch her second White House bid in April, one Democrat told Allen, “She doesn’t feel under any pressure, and [her allies] see no primary challenge on the horizon. If you have the luxury of time, you take it.”

Under one scenario envisioned by Hillaryland, Clinton would announce an exploratory committee in April -- at the start of the second fundraising quarter -- but hold off on formally declaring her candidacy for another three months, around the start of the next quarter.

While Clinton's potential delay may come as unwelcome news for political reporters eager to cover (and parse) the likely Democratic nominee's every utterance on the campaign stump, for Clinton herself, waiting makes a great deal sense from a strategic perspective. Here's why.

1. She's a known quantity.

As a former first lady, U.S. senator, and Secretary of State, Clinton will enter the race with universal name recognition; it's not as if she'll need to acquaint herself with American voters.

Unlike Clinton, who dominates Democratic primary polls far more decisively than she did in 2007-08 and is regarded as the prohibitive favorite to serve as the Democrats' standard-bearer, insurgent candidates have a vested interest in hitting the campaign trail early. Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) launched his 1972 presidential bid more than two years before the election, well aware that dislodging the establishment-backed frontrunner, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME), required a vigorous, years-long slog.

Similarly, few voters were familiar with Howard Dean when he filed paperwork for a 2004 presidential bid in 2002, but his fiery anti-war campaign soon gained traction among the liberal base, propelling him, for a time, to frontrunner status. Unlike McGovern, who won the nomination in 1972, Dean ultimately imploded, but had he not made his intentions known early, the former Vermont governor would likely have had a far more difficult time breaking through.

Clinton is not George McGovern, and she's not Howard Dean. She boasts broad support among both the party establishment and the rank-and-file, and the Clinton campaign-in-waiting is already a veritable behemoth.

2. The less Clinton is in the political limelight, the better her numbers are.

As Clinton's associates are acutely aware, Hillary's public opinion ratings are best when she isn't in the political limelight. During her time as a U.S. senator and 2008 presidential candidate, Clinton proved a polarizing figure, but during her tenure as the nation's top diplomat, her favorability ratings soared, hovering around 66 percent. Once she stepped down from the State Department and contemplated reentering the political arena, the smart money said that her sky-high approval ratings would come back down to earth.

And so they did. As she stepped back into a visible political role last year, Clinton revealed herself to be somewhat rusty -- lamenting that she and Bill left the White House "dead broke" in 2001, struggling to answer questions about the evolution of her views on marriage equality, and declaring that businesses don't create jobs in a ham-handed attempt to convince Democratic progressives that she's one of them. Such unforced errors took their toll; by the end of 2014, 48 percent of Americans said they couldn't see themselves voting for her in 2016.

But you may have noticed lately that Clinton hasn't been nearly as omnipresent as she seemed last year. And the most recent batch of polls show her with convincing leads over all the major GOP presidential aspirants. Whereas she once led by more modest margins and generally did not break 50 percent, recent surveys show Clinton hitting that crucial threshold and even leading her potential rivals by double-digit margins. While her better numbers admittedly have a great deal to do with an improving economy and the consequent uptick in President Obama's approval rating, it's notable that they come as she has retreated from the spotlight.

Of course, Clinton can't avoid the glare of that spotlight forever, and the increasingly polarized nature of the American electorate all but ensures that she won't win by the wide margin polls currently show. But why subject herself to the rough-and-tumble of presidential politics a moment sooner than necessary?

3. Remember "Clinton fatigue"?

During her 2008 run and her book tour last year, all the media rage was about "Clinton fatigue." The more Americans saw of Bill and Hillary, the greater their distaste for them, the narrative went. To be fair, this storyline had some basis in reality; look no further than Hillary's decline in public approval last year.

The Clinton fatigue narrative is sure to return in 2016, and an earlier-than-necessary launch would only further exacerbate it.

4. It's not like Clinton is leaving the Democratic Party in limbo.

If Clinton weren't going to run for president again, we'd know by now. In order to ensure that other viable candidates had time to assemble the resources necessary to mount credible bids, Clinton would have needed to signal her intent not to run last year. Every indication since then has been that Clinton has firmly decided to run again; she's even reportedly tapped her campaign manager and pollster.

Up-and-comers like Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren aren't waiting to see what Clinton decides before they make their own plans; they know she is running, and that's why such formidable candidates haven't stepped forward.

5. Let's face it: Clinton will be the Democratic nominee.

Allen reports that some Clinton allies fear that by waiting too long to announce, she could signal that she "sees the nomination fight as a coronation," setting herself up to repeat the mistakes that doomed her 2008 campaign. But Clinton is in a much stronger position than she was then; her lead over the 2008 field peaked at 33 percentage points, whereas her average lead now is about 50 points, and has never been less than 39 points.

Another key difference: With Warren giving every indication that she won't mount a challenge to Clinton, Hillary won't face an Obama-style threat this go-around. Sure, Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley, and Bernie Sanders are interesting candidates in their own ways, but it's not as if they're going to suddenly catch Clinton in the polls between now and July. So far, Webb has run a sleepy, Fred Thompson-style campaign; O'Malley is probably just angling for the vice presidential slot; and even Sanders, a tribune of the American left, is careful to say that he has "a lot of respect" for Clinton and wouldn't be running against her, per se. These are hardly the makings of a seriously contested race for the nomination. So why rush?

By Luke Brinker

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