Has the political punditry class lost its collective mind?
In a year in which every other supposed front-runner and establishment candidate has collapsed to single digits or has already withdrawn from the race — yes, I am talking about you, Jeb Bush, and you, Scott Walker — Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field with more than 40% of the vote. Can Bernie Sanders, who is 15 points behind her in recent polling, represent a real threat to her nomination? No. Hell no. Not a chance. But pundits keep asking the question without pointing out the obvious answer.
And given the fact that no vice president who has sought his party’s nomination has ever been denied it, you would think Clinton’s 20-point lead over Joe Biden would be seen as a remarkable sign of strength. Instead, when pundits mention Clinton’s lead over the vice president, they always follow up with the fact that Biden has yet to enter officially — and rarely caution that he may never enter it and that even if he does, he’ll start 20 points behind.
When has anyone been so strong that he or she led a sitting vice president by 20 points? Does the punditry really think it’s because he hasn’t announced yet?
Was the private server a mistake? Yes. Have questions about Clinton’s emails hurt her? Of course. Has her campaign been clumsy and mishandled the situation? No doubt about it. But there should also be no doubt that Clinton remains a formidable front-runner who will be tough to beat even if Biden enters the race. And she’ll be formidable in the general election too.
If the GOP wasn’t convinced that she could block their path to the White House in November 2016, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop her right now. If they thought her knees would buckle and she was really going to collapse — if they thought she would be a breeze to defeat — they would hold their fire until she was the Democratic nominee.
Pundits can focus on her weaknesses, her mistakes and her negatives while overlooking her strengths — for them, there are no real consequences — but her opponents do so at their own peril.
Things the punditry seems to have missed:
Clinton’s 2008 campaign made the fatal error of writing off caucus states as unimportant. She came in third in Iowa and barely reached 30% of the vote there. In total, caucus states cost her 100 delegates in a race she lost to Barack Obama by fewer than 300. The fact is her campaign will not make that mistake again. Clinton has recruited the best caucus organizers in the Democratic Party. She will be stronger in Iowa and gain far more delegates in caucus states in 2016.
Like it or not, pundits, it’s a better campaign this time around and far more organized.
Sanders may hold the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, but those states have never decided who the Democratic nominee will be; they merely winnow the field. Two or three candidates emerge out of those two states to fight for the nomination across the country. Right now, it looks as if Clinton and Sanders will be those two candidates. If Biden enters the race, three will make it. The candidate suffering from Sanders’ strength and speculation about Biden is not Clinton, it’s Martin O’Malley, who might otherwise have captured the “not Clinton” vote.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the “Hillary is collapsing” storyline is the complete underestimation of her strength beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, in more ethnically diverse states. In 2008, Obama proved early on that he could win his fair share of the progressive white vote; then he dominated Clinton with nonwhites across the rest of the country. And yet he still lost the popular vote (if you include Michigan, where he wasn’t on the ballot) and won the delegate count only by the slimmest of margins.
To believe that Sanders or even Biden can defeat Clinton, you have to believe they can run as well against her (after the first two contests) as Obama did. The obstacles to pulling that off are significant.
First, 56% of Democratic voters are women, who prefer Clinton to her rivals. And unlike Obama, who held Clinton to just 20% of the nonwhite vote through much of 2008, Sanders is trailing Clinton by 40 to 60 points among nonwhite Democrats. Pundits seem to enjoy questioning Clinton’s ability to energize the Obama coalition, but Sanders hasn’t been able to get out of the teens in terms of support among blacks or Latinos. Biden fares better, but he’s not Obama either.
Clinton leads Biden by 27 points and Sanders by 34 points in South Carolina, where Obama defeated her by 28 points. She leads them both by 32 points in Florida, where she defeated Obama despite exit polls showing he had won 75% of the black vote. (Sanders or Biden will be lucky to get 50% of the black vote against Clinton.)
Have all the Democratic voters in these states not heard of her emails and the server? Do they not know she is behind in Iowa and New Hampshire? How could they not? After months of drip, drip, drip, if the scandals haven’t sunk her with Democratic voters in these states, will further revelations hurt her? It’s possible, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The pundits say this is an outsider year and that voters from both parties are frustrated. Republicans may feel that Romney wasn’t pure enough on the right, and there are Democrats who feel that even Obama wasn’t pure enough on the left. And yet Clinton leads Sanders and Biden nationally in every poll. She has problems that she needs to address, of course, but look across the aisle at the GOP field and find a nominee who doesn’t. Good luck.
The pundits have it wrong. Unless or until Biden decides to run, Clinton doesn’t face much of a challenge. And if Biden does run, Clinton is still going to be very tough to beat.
Joe Trippi is a Democratic strategist and media consultant who ran Howard Dean’s campaign for president and was a media advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010.
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