The Democratic presidential race began with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee. The punditocracy (myself included) peddled this narrative for years, and for ostensibly good reasons. Hillary, in many respects, is the most prepared and qualified candidate in the entire field. She’s patiently waited her turn since losing to Obama in 2008, and has padded her already impressive resume since. But politics is a fickle business, and the landscape can change overnight.
The view that Hillary Clinton is the obvious frontrunner is no longer defensible. Poll after poll shows that Bernie Sanders is either gaining ground or leading outright. The latest CBS/YouGov poll is particularly alarming if you’re a Clinton supporter. Clinton is trailing Sanders by 10 points in Iowa and 22 points in New Hampshire, although Clinton maintains a sizable (if diminished) lead in South Carolina.
The most recent polls are indicative of a broader trend in the Democratic race. Clinton’s numbers have been slipping for several months, and it’s clear by now that Clinton is not the unassailable candidate many hoped she would be. Hillary’s strategy so far has been to tiptoe around Sanders, hoping his political star fades. But that strategy isn’t working. If anything, that sense of entitlement is part of the reason Sanders has ascended the way he has.
Clinton has to take Sanders seriously now, or risk alienating more of the Democratic base. This idea that Sanders is a fluke, a minor nuisance to be avoided, is a myth. Sanders’s appeal is self-evident and unlikely to pass away anytime soon. People are enthusiastic about his candidacy because he’s challenging the sort of institutional inertia that Clinton, fairly or not, represents. As an establishment figure, Clinton is the status quo. Whatever one thinks of Sanders, he is not part of the Washington consensus – and that matters a great deal in this race.
Democratic insiders like Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean, are still skeptical of Sanders’s staying power. Rejecting comparisons to Sanders’s rise and Dean’s insurgent 2004 campaign, Trippi articulated what I imagine many at the DNC are thinking: “The one thing I can tell you for sure is until the establishment starts attacking the living daylights out of him [Sanders], he’s no threat. The second he becomes a threat, you will know.”
Trippi’s statement implies two things, both of which we already knew: (1) Clinton represents the establishment and Sanders does not and (2) the establishment does not yet consider Sanders a legitimate candidate. Judging by their unwillingness to engage Sanders, I suspect the Clinton campaign shares the belief that Sanders is unserious – and that’s part of their problem. If Hillary’s team isn’t worried by now, their heads are buried deep in the sand.
It’s obviously too soon to write Hillary’s political obituary; with 4.5 months until the Iowa caucuses, this race is nowhere close to being over. But the narrative can shift in a hurry, especially in this media environment. If Bernie wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, everything is up for grabs (as it appears to be already). People like Trippi assume that Clinton is the frontrunner because she has more money (a lot more money!) and the blessing of the establishment. What she lacks, however, is the kind of enthusiasm and popular support that Sanders has. There’s no doubt that money and infrastructure are critical, and Clinton has more of both. But Sanders’s message is resonating with more and more people, and that trend is likely to continue.
In addition to the Clinton-Sanders dynamic, there’s also the possibility that Joe Biden will enter the race. There are still no clear signs that Biden will do so, but his presence would further complicate things for Clinton. The fact that Biden won’t shut this conversation down suggests, at the very least, that he’s still considering running. I’m not convinced Biden could win, but he’s a threat to Clinton for the same reason Sanders is: He’s more authentic. If he runs, Biden won’t be a favorite by any measure, but he would erode some of Hillary’s establishment support – and that ought to concern the Clinton campaign.
This race is wide open, in other words. Clinton may well be the frontrunner, but she's certainly no longer prohibitive. Team Clinton would do well to recognize this before it’s too late.