Will Hillary Clinton be the next US president?

| September 10, 2013

Hillary Clinton hasn’t revealed yet if she will run in the 2016 presidential campaign. Nicole Hemmer talks us through the possibility of her being the next US president.

Hillary Clinton is about to take over Americans’ television lineup. CNN plans to produce a documentary on her. NBC wants to do a miniseries about her political career.

In response, Reince Priebus, the improbably-named head of the Republican National Committee, has threatened to ban the networks from moderating Republican primary debates in 2016 if they air the “puff pieces”.

Priebus and the Republicans are worried because of the defining role Clinton will play in the 2016 presidential election. There are three big questions buzzing around her these days – questions that keep Democrats as well as Republicans up at night. Will she run? Will she win the nomination? And will she win the presidency?

Will she run?

This is potentially the toughest question to answer. It is also the most important for the Democratic Party. The Republicans already know they’re in for a repeat of 2012, a wide-open field with a diverse cast of characters.

Democrats have far less certainty. If Clinton runs, it seems unlikely she will face serious competition. If she doesn’t run, a herd of second- and third-tier candidates will have to scramble to put together the money, personnel, and organisation necessary to run a national campaign. The less lead time they have, the more chaotic the Democratic primary will be.

Conventional wisdom says she will definitely run. Journalist Toby Harnden has recently looked at the efforts of Clinton supporters to build support for their candidate. Harnden claimed Clinton’s candidacy is a certainty. He likened a Clinton no-show to The Godfather’s “Don Corleone retiring to an allotment”. In other words, politics is in her blood. There is no way will she pass up a chance at the presidency.

Still, uncertainties abound. Clinton will be 69 at the time of the 2016 election, making her one of the oldest nominees in history. She would be the same age as Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a few years younger than failed candidates John McCain and Bob Dole. She has been through bruising political fights and has historically been a polarising figure. Those sky-high approval ratings from her Secretary of State days will evaporate if she heads back into the fray for the 2016 campaign.

So, will she run? Probably. Clinton is a political creature. She could easily become the first female President of the United States. That’s too big a prize to pass up.

Will she win the nomination?

Absolutely. If the first question is the hardest to answer, this one is the easiest. It’s true that if Clinton runs the ghosts of 2008 will haunt her. Every time reporters call her “inevitable”, they will immediately follow up: “but then, Hillary Clinton has been the inevitable nominee before”.

Yet Clinton 2016 is quite different than Clinton 2008. In 2008, Clinton had an experienced campaign team surrounding her and the party establishment on her side. Both worked against her. Campaign techniques had radically changed in the decade since Bill Clinton ran for re-election, and the electorate was in a throw-the-bums-out mood. For 2016, the Clinton campaign would turn to Barack Obama’s staffers who won the president back-to-back elections. No-one in America knows better than they do how to run a digital, data-driven campaign.

Just as importantly, Clinton’s inevitability plays differently in 2016 than it did in 2008. In 2008, there was something unearned about Clinton’s inevitability. Normally the party’s heir apparent is either a person who has run before or one who has been in office so long that he has become a party institution. Clinton in 2008 was a first-time candidate and a junior senator. Her team’s sense of entitlement felt unmerited.

But now Clinton has earned her stripes. She fought tirelessly for the nomination in 2008, then made peace with Barack Obama and served in his administration as Secretary of State. She demonstrated she could be a diplomat as well as a partisan. Now she can claim it is not only her time, but her turn.

Will she win the presidency?

So much can happen between now and 2016 to change the calculus of this question, but given what we know today, Clinton would win a race against any Republican opponent. That may seem like a big call: the last time the Democrats won three presidential elections in a row was in the 1930s and 1940s. The Republicans, by comparison, last did it in the 1980s and 1990s.

Clinton, however, is widely popular. Her time as Secretary of State broadened her appeal. Time has helped as well. Her husband’s presidency, once seen as years of polarisation and prurience, is now viewed as a time of peace and prosperity. Because Clinton voted for the Iraq War and her husband supported welfare cuts and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the public considers Hillary Clinton more centrist than Obama. That appearance of centrism – accurate or not – will help her in a general election campaign.

Then there are the Republicans. Clinton’s route to victory cuts through the centre. Moving just a shade to the right of Barack Obama, she will be well-positioned for the general election. The Republican nominee, however, will have to survive the party’s primaries.

As we saw in 2008 and 2012, that means racing far to the right of the American electorate. As such, whoever emerges as the nominee will be on the back foot before the general campaign even begins. Easy pickings for an experienced (and ruthless) Clinton machine.


This blog was first published on The Conversation and is published on Open Forum with the permission of the author.