While the obvious winner and loser of the 2012 election will be the candidates themselves -- Obama and Romney -- there are some less obvious figures whose futures may hinge on the vote next week. These may not seem very important Tuesday evening. But by the next morning, they will. Two stand out from conspicuously from this crowd.
First and foremost of these is Hilary Clinton. Clinton stands to be the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016, regardless of who wins next week. Joe Biden will just have to accept that her flawless performance as Secretary of State and his reputation as gaffe-prone (even if overstated) makes her as much of a cinch for that nomination as any non-incumbent could ever be. Ms. Clinton did not, as she was wont to say "put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" in 2008. Rather, she obliterated it. If she had not been up against a once-in-a-century phenomenon in the face of Barack Obama or if she had not so tenaciously refused to say that her vote for the Iraq war was a mistake, the nomination would have been hers in 2008. Neither condition is likely in 2016.
But the more relevant question is whether this nomination will be worth much. Most economists predict that the recovery that is now in its early stages will be full-blown by 2016 and that the economy will be booming by then -- regardless of who is elected president. Whoever is in office in 2016 is likely to be credited with this recovery. If Obama is re-elected, Ms. Clinton should be a beneficiary of this since Democrats will all bask in that glory. If, however, Romney is elected, he will claim credit for the recovery and the public is likely to give him that credit. This should put him in a strong position to be re-elected. This could make the 2016 Democratic nomination not be worth very much. And she will be too old (think John McCain in 2008) and too "old news" to wait until 2020 to run -- though probably not too old to be re-elected in that year. Clinton's stake in this election is probably only exceeded by those whose names are actually on the ballot this year.
Paul Ryan looks like a winner either way. Should Romney lose, the Right will claim it is due to their having selected a moderate rather than a "true" conservative. Ryan will be the logical inheritor of this sentiment. And conservatives will be anxious to coalesce around a single candidate in 2016. Furthermore, Republicans do seem to have a tendency to select the "next in line" candidate: Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Dole, McCain, and Romney all fit this description. In 2016, Ryan will be the logical inheritor of this description, having been the 2012 VP nominee. But he will also be the Candidate of the Right. Most recent Republican nominations have involved a fight between the Candidate of the Right and the Next in Line. Ryan will be one of the few, like Reagan, who fits both descriptions.
Should Romney win, Ryan's future seems equally bright. He will just have to wait a bit longer for his moment. Whether or not Romney were to win re-election in 2016 (and I think he would be the odds-on favorite for reasons state above), Ryan would seem well poised to claim the Republican mantle in 2020. Get used to Paul Ryan. Barring a major debilitating scandal, he would seem poised to be a major figure in American politics in the first half of the 21st Century, perhaps like Richard Nixon was in the last half of the 20th.