It’s been clear for some time that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will not only run for the presidency but will do so with many veterans of Barack Obama’s political operation making up the backbone of her campaign. Though Clinton will inevitably position herself as a candidate advocating for a departure from the Obama era, the team she has put in place ahead of her White House bid suggests that she is essentially running for Obama’s third term.
It is not merely conservatives who are making this observation. According to NBC News, Clinton is not just running a campaign that looks like a continuation of the Obama presidency; she is running as a virtual incumbent president.
Think about it: She’s brought on key parts of President Obama’s 2012 team, and is now grabbing Obama’s White House communications director. And right now, it looks like she will face little to no real primary challenge. In his National Journal column, Charlie Cook writes that what Hillary Clinton is doing is pretty unprecedented. “History suggests that in open presidential nomination contests, front-runners rarely go from the starting line to the finish without losing a few primaries or caucuses along the way. Usually the leader stumbles, or a protest vote develops somewhere in the process, or another candidate catches a bit of luck or sparks a bit of interest.” And even in the case of Al Gore, who didn’t stumble in the 2000 primaries, he received a legitimate challenge from Bill Bradley. But here’s the deal about Hillary: It doesn’t look like she will receive a legitimate primary challenge, making her look more like an incumbent president running for president.
NBC News noted that running as the unchallenged heir to the Obama legacy will have its advantages and its challenges.
And as we’ve seen in the past, an incumbent president running for re-election has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages: You get to focus solely on the general election; you get to avoid the intra-party fights and attacks (which tend to resurface in the general); and you get the party’s organization and leaders behind you from the get-go. The disadvantages: You don’t get to make the personal connections with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire (both of which are battlegrounds); you’re a bit rustier at debates (see Obama in 2012); and your fortunes are a bit more tied to the overall fundamentals (Is the economy growing? What is the president’s approval rating?).
These are all valid points. Members of the political class who are backing Clinton are concerned that both the energy and the national organizational infrastructure that accompanies a contested presidential primary will be lost if Clinton does not face a serious challenge from within her party. It is logical to assume that this disadvantage will be overcome, however, when Clinton takes the reins of Obama’s campaign team, its voter lists, and its grassroots foundation. As for concerns about her debate performance, if the 2012 presidential debates are any indication, the advantages of incumbency — earned or presumed — are enough to overcome some stumbles on the stage.
NBC’s final point, the fact that Clinton’s electoral prospects will be wedded to the fundamental conditions she inherits from Obama, will prove most troubling for Democrats.
I’ve linked to this piece in The Federalist via RedState’s Dan McLaughlin on several occasions in the past, but it is truly the definitive post to consult when pondering whether a party occupying the White House has any chance of retaining control of the executive branch for three consecutive terms. After a deep dive into the data, McLaughlin concludes that there is a reason why Ronald Reagan was the only American president since the 1940s to be succeeded in the White House by a member of his party.
When examining all 16 non-incumbent American presidential elections that have occurred since 1868, McLaughlin found that “almost half of the battlegrounds flipped to the challenger party in the next election.”
“When the Democrats are the incumbent party, even with FDR on the ballot in two of the seven elections, the numbers are again worse: 104 out of 167 battlegrounds (62.3 percent) flipped to the Republican challengers, only six of 57 (10.5 percent) back to the incumbent Democrats,” he noted.
…if we widen our inquiry to add the six post-re-election races with an incumbent on the ballot, the numbers get slightly more favorable for the incumbent party, but still quite grim. In these races, we have 421 battleground states across 16 elections, a fairly robust sample by any standard, and the incumbent party remains at a decided disadvantage:
The incumbent party’s share of the two-party vote declined in 347 of 421 (82.4 percent) of the battleground states, by three or more points in 286 states (67.9 percent), by four or more in 257 states (61 percent), by seven or more in 177 states (42 percent) and by 10 or more in 129 states (30.6 percent). The incumbent party improved by three or more points in 41 states (9.7percent), by four or more in 31 states (7.4 percent), and 26 of them in two elections (1904 and 1928). And yet again, Democrats running as the incumbent party fared the worst, including losing vote share in 197 out of 218 (90.4 percent) of the battleground states, fully half of those (109 states) by seven or more points.
Whether or not this pattern holds in 2016 is dependent on how the fundamental factors influencing the public’s perception of Barack Obama’s administration evolve over the next 20 months.
Does the economy continue to improve? Does the unemployment rate fall or rise relative to the number of Americans participating in the labor force? Do average wages continue to stagnate, or do Americans begin to see the pie again expanding. Does the war in Europe stall or will the fighting worsen in the next year? How does the fight against ISIS develop? All observers, including the White House, expect that Obama’s successor will inherit the war against the Islamic State, but does it look to the American public like the West is finally turning the tide against ISIS by 2016? Can American officials continue to prevent terrorist attacks inside the homeland? Does the Obama administration avoid becoming embroiled in a crippling scandal that cannot be so easily written off by the political press?
All these questions and other unknown variables will influence how Americans vote in 2016, because these are the questions that shape how the electorate feels about an incumbent president. Hillary Clinton would surely like to run as an agent of change, but her political fortunes are now tied to the Obama administration. The question voters will ask themselves ahead of 2016 is whether or not they want to ratify the last eight years of governance from the White House by giving the Democratic Party at least four more.