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Voters Not Always Kind to Presidential Frontrunners

Hillary Clinton participates in a conversation about her career in government and her new book, "Hard Choices.," at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, June 12, 2014
Hillary Clinton participates in a conversation about her career in government and her new book, "Hard Choices.," at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, June 12, 2014
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has embarked on a U.S. and Canadian tour promoting her latest book, “Hard Choices,” a memoir of her time as America’s top diplomat. 

The book tour has fueled speculation that Clinton is likely to run for president in 2016 amid public opinion polls that show her as the clear favorite among possible Democratic and Republican contenders.

But early frontrunner status in presidential politics is not always a guarantee of success down the road.

For now Clinton is drawing large crowds on her book tour and many Democratic supporters see it as an opportunity to urge her to run for the White House two years from now.  Clinton says she will decide on a White House run by early next year.

Clinton’s new book deals primarily with foreign policy issues during her tenure as secretary of state.  But during a recent policy speech in Washington, it was clear Clinton is also devoting considerable thought to domestic policy amid the speculation that she will be a presidential candidate in 2016.

“We know that America is strongest when prosperity and common purpose are broadly shared, when all our people believe they have the opportunity and in fact do, to participate fully in our economy and our democracy,” said Clinton.

Public opinion polls show Clinton is a huge favorite at the moment both for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and in the general election in 2016 as well.

George Washington University political scientist John Sides says she appears to be one of the strongest political frontrunners in decades.

“She is a known quantity to most voters.  I don’t think she has to worry about image management yet.  And ultimately it is just a question of whether she thinks she has the necessary stamina and the desire to actually pull this off,” said Sides.

But Clinton has been in this position before.  She was also a favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2008 but lost out in a lengthy and difficult campaign to then-Senator Barack Obama, who went on to become the nation’s first African American president.

Democratic strategist Celinda Lake predicts that another Clinton campaign in 2016 would rally women voters who believe the time has come to make history again.

“The vast majority of Americans said we are going to have an African American president before we have a woman president, and they were right.  Well now people think it is time for a woman and there are a lot of particularly baby-boomer women who feel like, if not Hillary, then who?”

If Clinton does run, analyst John Sides says she will likely take a different approach to the race, given some of the tough lessons she learned in her losing campaign in 2008.

“I think one of the things they learned is not to be caught unawares in some of the early primaries and caucuses.  Barack Obama’s victory in the first caucus, the Iowa caucus (in 2008), was certainly a significant blow to her and gave him the momentum he needed to carry this thing all the way through,” he said.

Voters have not always embraced presidential frontrunners.  In 1972, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.  But he was upset by an insurgent campaign on behalf of South Dakota Senator George McGovern.

McGovern went on to lose the presidential election in a landslide to President Richard Nixon.  But elements of his campaign strategy were copied by other successful insurgent Democratic candidates over the years including Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008.

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