The pundits can’t keep Elizabeth Warren’s name off their lips. Not since the swift rise of Barack Obama has a senator skyrocketed to such prestige within the Democratic Party in such a short period of time — and, for a second time in a row, this talented senator seems to have arrived at just the right moment to keep a nascent Hillary Clinton presidential campaign from becoming little more than a coronation. Clinton’s ‘inevitability’ may be an illusion, once again.
But a careful examination of the facts of the 2008 primary campaign demonstrates that the circumstances of the 2016 race are already radically different from last time — and in a way that benefits Hillary to such an extent that she is almost certainly better-positioned to win her party’s presidential nomination than any non-incumbent since Dwight Eisenhower.
In November 2006, then-Sen. Clinton could scarcely reach 40% in public polls of registered Democrats. A USA Today-Gallup poll from Nov. 9-12, 2006, showed Clinton with only 31% support, with Barack Obama at a respectable 19% — a gap of only 12%. No 2006 poll ever showed Clinton with more than a 22% lead. Her largest lead at any point in the cycle was 34% — in September 2007. But a recent ABC-Washington Post poll of registered Democrats shows Hillary Clinton with a colossal 53% advantage over Elizabeth Warren — 64% to 11%, with Vice President Joe Biden taking 13% of the vote. She not only has more than double the support she had at this point in the 2008 cycle, but an almost 20% greater lead than she had at any point in 2008. Even Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the best example of an ‘inevitable’ presidential nominee in modern history, was up by just 26% in the autumn of 1998.
This matters significantly because Clinton only barely lost the nomination last time, after having begun from a far weaker starting point — and, for all of her gifts, Sen. Warren is not the phenom President Obama was: not only does she lack his oratory skill, but if she were to run, she would be extremely unlikely to capture the near-unanimous support of the black community that President Obama gained shortly after his win in the Iowa caucuses — support that was absolutely vital to his success. If it were not for the unity of the black community, Barack Obama would not be president today. Warren will not be able to recapture that history-making energy. Moreover, President Obama’s 2008 victory was heavily dependent on his ability to catch Clinton asleep at the wheel in caucus states, where she totally failed to organize — a mistake she most certainly will not make twice.
Clinton’s old Achilles’ heel — her support for the Iraq War — has lost much of its potency, too, as the vote to go to war recedes further and further into the public’s memory. Nearly a decade’s time has elapsed between her first presidential announcement and now — and her foreign policy knowledge after a largely successful run as Secretary of State is unquestioned. She remains somewhat to the right of the foreign policy center-of-gravity among primary voters — but she is still thoroughly within the Democratic mainstream.
Finally, parties are always more cautious about their choice of nominee when they sense they are in a position of weakness. In large part because of President George W. Bush’s failures, the political climate of 2008 was as favorable to progressives as it had been in at least a generation: the Democratic Party was fresh off of a sweeping victory in the 2006 midterms, and the country was utterly fatigued of Bush. It is not surprising that Democrats felt more comfortable with selecting a bolder nominee than Clinton in 2008. But in this cycle, the circumstances are reversed. Like Republicans in 2008, Democrats will almost certainly prioritize ‘electability,’ and Clinton remains the party’s best chance at holding the White House.
She may not have been inevitable in 2008, but in 2016, the nomination is hers. Democrats who are not yet Ready for Hillary had better make their peace.