Negative media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s dubious email use is denting her support in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries. But don’t think this makes the former secretary of state any less likely to win the nomination next year.
Throughout 2014, Clinton’s approval ratings hovered safely north of 60 percent, the RealClearPolitics average of polls shows. Since it was reported this summer that she used a private email server while serving as America’s top diplomat between 2009 and 2013 — possibly in violation of the law, definitely in violation of protocol — her support has fallen to 45 percent.
That is still far ahead of her nearest rival, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, but his support has gone up from 13 to 23 percent in the same period.
Vice President Joe Biden is not a candidate but has nevertheless been included in many polls and seen his support rise from 12 to 19 percent.
In the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton’s numbers are even worse. In the former, she is tied with Sanders at 37 percent. In New Hampshire, Sanders has overtaken Clinton 43 to 32 percent.
So is Clinton’s candidacy in danger?
Sanders’ supporters will argue that Clinton was similarly considered inevitable eight years ago and was nevertheless defeated by Barack Obama. But her party support was much weaker at the time.
FiveThirtyEight shows that Clinton has much stronger support, as measured by endorsements, from elected officials than she did in 2008.
Indeed, she has much stronger support than any Democratic presidential candidate in recent history. Even Al Gore, who ran virtually unopposed in the 2000 primaries, had fewer endorsements at this point than Clinton does.
Sanders, by contrast, has no institutional support whatsoever. Which isn’t too surprising given that he isn’t even a Democrat. The socialist caucuses with the party in the Senate but is nominally an independent.
Clinton knows that what matters at this point, four months away from the first voting contests, is getting the party behind her and building a national campaign infrastructure in case the nominating process takes months (less because that’s likely and more to deter challengers).
What the party is looking for is a candidate who will advance its agenda. This is where Clinton is strongest. She is moving a little to the left of President Obama on issues like wages and trade and a little to his right on foreign policy. That is where the bulk of the Democratic Party is.
Sanders, by contrast, is trying to pull the party far to the left on both counts. Too far.
Unlike Jeremy Corbyn in England, who appears to have moved his Labour Party back into the 1970s thanks to the influx of tens of thousands of far-left activists, Sanders won’t be able to manipulate the voting system in his favor.
FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver argues that the party has a lot of ways in which it can influence the selection process. It appoints superdelegates, schedules debates and has hundreds of millions of dollars to spent on advertising.
And voters have a lot of time to make their decisions and can amend them as they go along — an insurgent candidate who wins Iowa or New Hampshire won’t necessarily have staying power if they’ve failed to build a broad coalition of support.
Even if he manages to eke out victories in Iowa, where the Democratic electorate is more willing to give outsiders a chance, and New Hampshire, where white middle-class suburbanites predominate, Sanders will run into a political firewall in March when more than a dozen Midwestern and Southern states vote. This where Clinton beat Obama the last time she ran for president.
This time around, she could also get more support from black and Hispanic voters in states like Nevada and South Carolina which vote in February.
What could derail Clinton’s candidacy is Joe Biden.
Right now, Clinton’s numbers may be down but she is still far ahead of her rivals, her party support is strong, her fundraising is unaffected and she isn’t suffering staff defections.
If the vice president enters the contest after all, he would divide donors and voters and split the loyalties of Democratic Party activists, staffers and officials.
For the party, it would be an embarrassment, writes Silver.
These party elites would have a lot of explaining to do to Democratic voters about what had changed and why they were revoking their support for the first potential woman president in favor of a septuagenarian white guy — and not the septuagenarian white guy from Vermont whom the Democratic grassroots is excited about.
It may be Biden’s last chance. He ran for president twice before and is 72 years old. But he has no organization at this point, no natural constituency and would have to face off a woman that the majority of Democrats has already decided should lead them into the next election. Why would he bother?