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Bernstein: Will a Democrat run against Clinton?

Bloomberg News//June 6, 2014

Bernstein: Will a Democrat run against Clinton?

Bloomberg News//June 6, 2014

TapirBoy1 asks: “If HRC runs, does a left and/or populist opponent make it as far as IA if you had to guess today? As far as NH?”

One question is whether Hillary Clinton has an overwhelming lead for the Democratic nomination. She certainly has an incredibly strong polling position, one that is unprecedented for a non-incumbent in the modern era. And what is even more telling is that there is a presumption that she has a lock on the nomination. It’s possible that a lot of that is built on sand: Once the real running begins, some of the people who appear to be supporters now will turn out to have been merely playing it safe just in case no other contenders got involved. But it’s also very possible that what you see is what you get; as soon as her candidacy becomes formalized, she’ll roll out endorsement after endorsement from a wide range of party figures.

The people in the best position to know which of those possibilities are real are other serious candidates. Presumably, they already are talking to party actors — politicians, party-aligned interest groups, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists and the partisan press — and deciding what to do based on what they hear. One way of thinking about this question, then, is whether anyone will press the issue if they believe that Clinton’s support is actually weak enough to make defeating her possible, but not especially likely. At that point, it comes down to what other candidates are hearing, and how risk-averse they are.

If, on the other hand, party actors are with Clinton, making defeating her essentially impossible, then a candidate could still run either for self-promotion or to press on one or more issues.

It doesn’t appear that there’s a lot of money, or even status, to be gained on the Democratic side from a vanity campaign. Al Sharpton wound up with an MSNBC show, but it’s not clear that his presidential campaign had much to do with that. As far as I know, Dennis Kucinich hasn’t successfully monetized his White House runs. In any case, neither has achieved the in-party status that Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann have attained on the Republican side.

But running for ideological or issue reasons is available. The question is whether any politician wants to undergo the ordeal (including willingness to experience open season in the press) in exchange for publicity and vague hopes of nudging the party in a slightly different direction. What we can say is that there’s a relatively fixed universe of those who could execute that strategy, but it’s not all that small. Anyone in Congress, in either chamber, could probably have a high enough profile that Clinton would have to attend a few debates.

One thing I can say: a candidate whose aim is to press the party on issues or ideology might well stick around for a while. There’s a lower bound; if Clinton was getting 95 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, then Congresswoman Smith or former Sen. Jones wouldn’t be able to generate enough press attention to make it worthwhile to stay in. But that candidate could lose 65/35 for quite some time before deciding to call it quits, and probably wouldn’t need all that much money.

Summarizing: if Clinton’s support isn’t that strong after all, we’ll probably get one or more candidate in it to win. If her support is as advertised, we could get an issues or ideological candidate, and that candidate could stay in the race for some time.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics. A political scientist, he previously wrote “A Plain Blog About Politics.” He is co-editor of “The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012.” To contact the writer of this article write to:  [email protected].

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