If Hillary Clinton chooses to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, she will be in the catbird seat, at least on paper. Hillary presently holds a commanding lead over all other prospective Democratic presidential candidates. Although it might appear likely that she will be coroneted by the Democratic Party and that her nomination will be a mere proforma exercise, this may be an illusion.
The problem Hillary has is that she is running as a Democrat. Although it is almost standard operating procedure for the Republican Party to nominate the early frontrunner (usually the one who came in second place in the prior nomination sweepstakes), the Democrats are more likely to nominate an insurgent candidate who catches fire in his or her maiden political race.
On the GOP side, George W. Bush is the only president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 to win the nation's highest office in his first attempt. In Bush's case, he garnered high name recognition as the son of a former president. In addition, the preponderance of the GOP establishment supported him.
With few exceptions, the GOP nomination process is remarkable consistent. A candidate runs, finishes in second place, and then musters his party's nomination the next time it is open.
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford won the Republican presidential nomination. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan came in second. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the nomination with former CIA Director George H.W. Bush finishing in second place. In 1988, George H.W. Bush garnered the party's nomination with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-KS) coming in second. In 1996, Robert J. Dole mustered the party's nomination. Breaking the pattern, former Republican presidential advisor Patrick J. Buchanan finished in second place in 1996 and did not win the nomination in 2000.
The nomination instead went to Texas Governor George W. Bush, with U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) coming in second place. The pattern continued in 2000, with John McCain winning the GOP nomination in 2008. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney came in second to McCain then won the GOP nomination in 2012.
Unfortunately for Hillary, Democrats do not fall in line in this relatively predictable manner. The early front runner is far from assured of the Democratic Party's nomination, and candidates who finished second in the prior election are not assured of the nomination the next time around.
In 1972, the early frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination was U.S. Senator Edmond Muskie (D-ME). Muskie had afforded himself well in 1968 as the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee. Polls as late as August of 1971 showed Muskie defeating Republican President Richard M. Nixon. Yet the campaign of U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD) struck a resonant chord with the vociferous activist wing of the Democratic Party. They were adamant in their opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam and McGovern was bold in stating without reservation that as President he would "announce a definite early date for the withdrawal of every American soldier." Muskie had been a supporter of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and his subsequent opposition was too late for these activists. McGovern, an early opponent of the war, ran under the slogan "Right from the start" and secured his party's nomination. Muskie was never again a presidential candidate.
Four years later, the Democratic Party once again turned to an insurgent. The early frontrunner for the 1976 Democratic Party nomination was U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. He had the support of many party regulars and wealthy benefactors. Jackson enjoyed great name recognition among Democratic voters. However, Jackson, a career politician, was running in the wake of Watergate. The Democratic Party wanted a voice from outside the beltway. By running as a Washington outsider, former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was able to capitalize on this discontent with the political establishment. In 1974, Harris Interactive released a poll of potential Democratic Presidential candidates in 1976. Thirty-five potential Democratic candidates were identified in the poll. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter's name did not even show up on the list. Carter went on to win the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination and was elected president.
After the Democratic Party nominated the establishment candidate, former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, the party twice nominated first-time candidates with little national name recognition: Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and 1992. In fact, Bill Clinton scored just 3 percent in a Gallup poll taken in July of 1991.
Of course no one knows more about the potential for an insurgent to rise from the ashes than Hillary herself. She was the preponderant frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination throughout 2006 and 2007. The Democratic establishment came out in droves to endorse her candidacy. Yet she had one underlying vulnerability, her 2002 vote for the authorization of the use of force in Iraq. While Hillary castigated George W. Bush for his handling of the war and opposed the president's plan to send 20,000 more troops to Iraq, she never disavowed her 2002 vote. A young charismatic U.S. senator representing Illinois named Barack Obama (D-IL) exploited this vulnerability, appealing to the activist bloodline of the Democratic Party on that issue. Obama was an opponent of the war and excoriated Hillary for giving Bush "the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day." Hillary could not recover from that vote and Obama defeated her for the Democratic nomination.
Ironically, Hillary's main point of vulnerability, should she run in 2016, could be the former U.S. Secretary of State's association with the Obama administration. She is now associated with the policies of the administration. There is a developing fissure in the Democratic Party between the center-left Democratic establishment (who would likely be Hillary's base of support), and the activist wing of the party.
As in 2008, Hillary will likely garner the support of party regulars, yet may have a problem propitiating support from activists who have become disenchanted with the administration for policies supported by Hillary. These include the troop surge and the protracted U.S. presence in Afghanistan, use of drone warfare, debilitating sanctions leveled on Iran, and support for the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.
In addition, many on the left are dismayed at the administration for its pragmatic approach in the legislative arena, including abandoning the public option to get the requisite votes needed to pass Health Care Reform and accepting an extension of the Bush era tax cuts. In addition, the administration continues to support the drug war, widely unpopular with activist Democrats.
Adding to the uncertainty of the prospect Hillary pocketing the nomination is the fact that there could be an opening for a charismatic candidate new to the national political stage. This candidate might advocate a non-interventionist foreign policy, a respect for civil liberties, and a more progressive domestic agenda. Like Obama in 2008, this candidate would style himself or herself as a new voice, with a new progressive agenda which takes into account the contemporary concerns of the activist Democrats. Running against Hillary for the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination is not an enviable position, but she is not immutable and has vulnerabilities to be exploited. The Democrats, unlike the Republicans, do not simply nominate the candidate whose turn it is. If Hillary decides to run, she will not have a cakewalk. She will have to work assiduously to garner the Democratic nomination.