WASHINGTON — The next U.S. presidential election is still more than two years away, but any discussion of possible contenders among Democrats begins (and for some ends) with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has a huge lead in public opinion polls and is expected to decide on a White House run by the end of this year. Just the possibility of her candidacy is already having a huge impact on the 2016 race. Call it the "Clinton mystique," if you like. The fact is that for Democrats, trying to figure out who will be the party’s presidential nominee two years from now begins with a simple question—will she or won’t she?
Clinton is saying little about that for now. But she’s not staying out of the public limelight either. Clinton has been busy giving paid speeches around the country, where she reminds audiences of her commitment to women’s rights. “I believe that advancing the rights, opportunities and full participation of women and girls here at home and around the world is the great unfinished business of the 21st century,” she said during a recent event in Boston. “So we know we have work to do. We have to knock down barriers and women themselves have to develop the confidence to pursue their ambitions.”
Clinton is also eagerly awaiting the arrival of her first grandchild later this year. When daughter Chelsea announced the news in New York a few weeks back, she paid tribute to Hillary: “I just hope that I will be as good a mom to my child and, hopefully, children as my mom was to me.”
But it’s not always going to be rose petals and laurels for the former secretary of state, senator and first lady. During a recent speech in Nevada, a woman threw one of her shoes at Clinton. Clinton deftly ducked the high heel and seemed confused for a moment, asking “What was that? A bat?” It might turn out to be good training for the 2016 primaries or even the general election if she makes it that far.
How strong is she?
If Clinton does run for the Democratic presidential nomination, she will be formidable, says George Washington University expert John Sides. “She is probably as best-positioned to be the Democratic nominee in a year with no incumbent president as any recent Democratic nominee has been. So really, the race is hers if she wants it.”
Sides also notes that waiting for Hillary to make up her mind essentially freezes other potential Democratic contenders in place, including Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. “If there are a lot of early indications that Clinton has solidified support within the party," Sides says, "I think it makes sense for candidates who might otherwise get in the race to keep their powder dry and wait until the next time.”
But O’Malley has already suggested he won’t wait forever. He has little name recognition nationally and would need to get out and campaign early to build that up.
Clinton also doesn’t have to take into account factors that other challengers might be consumed with, like name recognition, fundraising and winning endorsements from fellow Democrats. “She is a known quantity to most voters,” says Sides. “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.”
Clinton could still face some short of challenge on the left. Maybe someone like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean could decide to give Democrats a choice in the 2016 primaries, or perhaps an updated version of former congressman Dennis Kucinich. But if she runs she will be an overwhelming favorite to win the nomination and would probably be favored in the general election in November no matter who wins the Republican nomination.
But as the favorite, Clinton would also be a prime political target, especially for Republicans who have long opposed her and who recall her comments about the “vast right wing conspiracy” arrayed against her husband during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “If you are way out there everybody is shooting at you, gunning at your back, not only other possible candidates but certainly the media. So she is in a very exposed position,” says Stephen Hess, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution. “On the other hand, (she is in) a very good position in that she is raising a lot of money and that is very important in presidential politics.”
Republicans are sure to continue to hammer away at her handling of the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. House Speaker John Boehner says to expect more hearings on the issue in the months ahead: “When it comes to Benghazi, we’ve got four Americans who are dead and their families deserve the truth about what happened and the administration refuses to tell them the truth.”
Despite the potential problems, most analysts see Hillary Clinton as a very strong presidential candidate. Karlyn Bowman studies U.S. public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “I think the Democratic race is frozen until she tells us what she plans to do. After all she has been a figure in our lives since 1991 and 1992 when Bill Clinton first ran for election. And so we have watched Hillary Clinton for a long time and I think it is her decision to make.”
Bowman adds that after an exhaustive review of Clinton’s poll ratings over the years, she seems to be in a very strong position. “I have been reviewing all the poll questions ever asked on Hillary Clinton and there are probably several thousand of them at least. And it is a remarkably favorable picture when you look at the whole picture over time since 1992.”
Clinton is also gearing up for the June release of her book on her time as President Obama’s secretary of state. Titled “Hard Choices,” it's bound to generate days of press coverage and keep her in the headlines.
So, yes, it’s early and a lot can happen in two years. But it’s hard to imagine someone in a stronger political position than Hillary Clinton is at the moment.