POLITICS

Hillary Clinton And The Not Too Bitter, Not Too Smooth, Just Right Primary

02/22/2015 07:30 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2015
Mike Coppola via Getty Images

Every election cycle can be considered, first and foremost, a monument to hype. With every passing week, the political world is a blizzard of brash predictions, bold pronouncements and bad advice. This year, your Speculatroners shall attempt to decode and defang this world with a regular dispatch that we're calling "This Week In Coulda Shoulda Maybe." We hope this helps, but as always, we make no guarantees!

This week: We focus on one specific question -- what if they have a Democratic primary, and only one presidential candidate shows up?

the empty primary

It shouldn't be controversial to say that at this point in the 2016 race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoys virtually every possible advantage in the Democratic primary field. She's the best-known candidate with the highest level of name recognition and visibility. She has a long-nurtured campaign apparatus and the ability to call campaign infrastructure into being on the fly. Against the rest of the Democratic field, she's the overwhelming favorite in every poll that's ever been conducted.

Of course, anytime we talk about a "Democratic field," we should really say, "insofar as one exists." Her competition -- so far a dimly lit constellation of long shots (and perhaps the current vice president) -- isn't shaping up as a particularly robust challenge. Clinton plays a role in that simply by looming on the landscape. As has been discussed previously, Clinton has the power to "freeze the field" -- meaning that her dominance is such that Democratic party elites and mega-donors are loath to invest in a competitor, creating a sort of vicious cycle in which no viable competitors can truly present themselves.

There is a very real possibility that Clinton could face only a nominal challenge in a Democratic primary, and potentially none at all. And that's produced an interesting phenomenon among the members of the political media who, expecting a competitive primary to generate monetizable content and grist for "The Narrative," find themselves somewhere in the middle of a story that doesn't seem to have started. This is how you can understand the constant attention given to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- a woman who is not running for president -- as a "foil" for Clinton. Every great protagonist needs an antagonist, and the political press would dearly love, if possible, to will one into being.

Elsewhere, there are the Hot Takes, suffused by the media's drug of choice, counter-intuition. Are all the advantages that Clinton secretly holds actually disadvantages in disguise? Is Clinton's ability to quelch all viable contenders for the Democratic nomination actually the Achilles heel that will lead to her undoing? A better question might be: Are all the people offering that opinion simply planting a flag for a future "Told ya so" story down the line?

I think it's fair to say that most of us, if we wanted something important (like, say, a job), wouldn't spend much time regretting the news that we were the only person in the running. Just about everyone would prefer to win in a blowout. At the same time, there is something that we all understand instinctually about the nature of competition: It tests mettle. And the old eyeball test informs us of the virtues of tested mettle. When we look at the 27-1 Gonzaga University men's basketball team alongside the other basketball teams in the top four of the NCAA's national rankings, many of us downgrade the Bulldogs because we know that they didn't play against the same level of competition as Kentucky, Virginia and Duke did. So, in the back of our mind, Gonzaga looms as a paper tiger.

That said, eventually Gonzaga is going to have ample opportunity to show that they're superior to their competition -- just like Clinton will, even if she runs in an uncontested primary.

Of course, the fact that there isn't already vigorous competition for Clinton to face tells us a few potentially ominous things. First and foremost, it shows that the Democratic Party's bench is not terribly deep right now. Elections are, at bottom, a competition of ideas -- one in which a losing candidate's vision may persist beyond the candidate's own electoral hopes. That's a good thing for any political party. Furthermore, a quickly decided primary could negatively impact state-level political organizing, which in turn would impact the vitality of down-ticket campaigns.

But let's stick with the question: Is Hillary running virtually unopposed a bad thing? As Vox's Matt Yglesias points out, having a competitive primary means "real debates, real media strategy, real policy rollouts, and all the other accompaniments of a presidential nominating congress." He goes on to note that "competition" in this instance goes well beyond simply having other credible opponents:

A vigorous primary campaign is a means through which, among other things, the key potential vulnerabilities in a candidate's biography get aired. Was Clinton lying about her opposition to gay marriage the way David Axelrod says Obama was? Have too many years at the pinnacle of American politics left her out of touch with middle class struggles? Can she distance herself from Obama administration foreign policy initiatives that didn't work out (settlement freeze? Russia reset?) without sounding disloyal or ineffectual? Can she answer questions about the complicated finances underlying her husband's foundation?

As long as she's "not running," we just don't know. And the closer she gets to obtaining the nomination without answering the questions, the more vulnerable the position she leaves herself in for the general election.

Here's the thing: All of that is smart-sounding stuff. It's thoughtful argument that appeals to our instincts. You can take that to a Beltway soiree or the set of a Sunday morning talk show, and with a little charm, you'll hold up. And yet, it's still really just gut feelings. It's still that instinct that pushes you to take an at-large team from the ACC deeper in the tourney than the one-loss Western Conference champions -- a good enough gamble that could, nonetheless, leave your bracket in tatters.

And it's worth pointing out that over on the GOP side, Republican elites are making their own set of gambles with their primary. The Republican National Committee's interpretation of their 2012 cycle woes has led them to believe that the long primary cost them dearly. The RNC believes that their primary afforded too many fleeting also-rans too much media coverage, that the length of the competition provided too many opportunities for their party to be shown in a bad light, and that ultimately, everything conspired to force their nominee into a bunch of positions from which the extrication was too difficult. They have, subsequently, undertaken a number of moves to "fix" this problem, and while they've not created a situation in which one candidate has a massive advantage over everyone else, it's still a drive toward limiting the competition, all based on some gut feelings.

Can we get closer to the truth of how, if at all, a competitive primary brings benefits -- or pitfalls -- to candidates? Well, if we turn to political science, there seems to be one constant notion: A competitive primary is very good for candidates, right up to where the competitive primary becomes a divisive primary, at which point the benefits of competition tend to fade.

The virtues of competitive primaries are hotly debated, as it turns out. Back in February of 2008, The Monkey Cage's John Sides embarked on an exploration of the topic, noting that the most relevant research at the time pointed to other factors as being far more determinative of success in a general election. From a gambler's point of view, the health of the economy and the popular regard for the presidential incumbent matter a lot more than what happens during a primary.

But Josh Putnam, proprietor of Frontloading HQ, nevertheless saw something interesting in the notion that a competitive primary could take a dark, blowback-producing turn. Just as the RNC concluded after the 2012 cycle, the factor that fascinated Putnam in 2008 was timing -- the notion that on a long enough timeline, a competitive primary eventually, maybe inevitably, turns divisive. Per Putnam:

At what point does the positive competitiveness of the race for delegates turn into the negative, party-splitting divisiveness? Should Clinton do well in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, then 2008 may have reached that point for the Democrats. But in the Super Tuesday era (1988/1992-2004), no challenger has been afforded such an opportunity. That era was marked by frontrunners who were able to snuff out insurgencies before competitiveness turned to divisiveness. ... [Walter] Mondale quelled Gary Hart before a movement started (No, this isn't within the era I defined above but it is a good example.). George W. Bush kept [John] McCain at bay. And [John] Kerry silenced John Edwards. Competitiveness yielded to reality in all three cases before divisiveness took hold or could attempt to take hold.

It's almost as if there's a sort of "uncanny valley" phenomenon happening, in which competition elevates everyone until it gets too hot or turns too personal. There's a sweet spot: Ideally, you want your level of competition to be challenging, but not bedeviling. You want the primary race to look like a collegial bit of tire-kicking, not a campaign in which you're sending arsonists out to torch the rival dealership. So maybe all of the people who continually pen that "Elizabeth Warren versus Hillary Clinton" fan fiction are onto something, instinctually: They have a sense that the Jim Webbs and Martin O'Malleys of the world might not make it out of Iowa and that Clinton needs someone who can stay in the game long enough to make it to Super Tuesday. But not much further than that.

In the end, that data-driven conclusion about competitive primaries that we really want remains elusive -- or at the very least, not strong enough to talk us out of our horse-sense feelings on the matter. But let's return to one last study, cited by The Monkey Cage's Jonathan Robinson, about that 2008 competition between Clinton and Barack Obama:

Using a survey that tracked individual voters from the primary to the general election, Michael Henderson, D. Sunshine Hillygus, and Trevor Thompson ... examine whether and why Clinton supporters did or did not support Obama in the general election. They find that 71% of Clinton supporters ended up voting for Obama. Moreover, supporters of Clinton and the other Democratic candidates were no more likely to stay home on Election Day. The most important factors that predicted a vote for McCain among supporters of the other Democratic candidates were not frustration with the primary election’s outcome but ideology and political issues, especially the Iraq War.

All of that suggests that even though the 2008 Democratic primary got fiercely competitive, it still stoked an energy that lasted throughout the election cycle, ensuring that Democratic voters stayed engaged over the long haul. Perhaps what a political party, ideally, wants out of a primary is a contest where the competitiveness fosters some amount of voter engagement without tipping into a grotesque spectacle that leaves those who had engaged with it feeling nauseous, discouraged and just plain done with politics for the year.

Handled the right way, a contested primary creates a number of "products" organically that would need to be manufactured by other means in a non-contested primary. Competition helps to present those Big Ideas to the electorate, a vision of the future for which to fight. It breeds passion and gets voters to start using those muscles of commitment, which eventually get them out of the house and to the polls on Election Day. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the candidates to make connections with those activist members of the electorate, who'll use their muscles to make sure those committed voters know how to get to those polls on time.

At this point, it sure looks like Hillary Clinton can grab the nomination without too much trouble. Trouble is, some trouble might be a nice thing to have.

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