Let me first start by saying that I’m not terribly interested in the Democratic Party’s inner workings and machinations. This could spring from that fact that I really, fundamentally, disagree with the underlying principles of the Party, or it could be simply that none of the candidates on their side (at least in the Presidential context) are even remotely interesting.
This caveat expressed, it’s important to cover the First Democratic Presidential Debate that will air this evening on CNN. As you’re likely aware, the Republicans have already had two prime-time debates (and two mini-debates) with another scheduled for October 28. The Republicans also have three-times as many candidates declared for the nation’s top job. If you haven’t really been following the Democrat side of the race, let me give you a brief overview of where the race stands in three points.
POINT 1: THE NARRATIVE OF INEVITABILITY IS COLLAPSING
If I asked you who is running on the Democrat side for the White House, your first response would likely be: Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton is the former First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State for President Obama in the President’s first term. Many of you may also know that Martin O’Malley is running for President, but that is because many of you live in and around Washington DC. You may have also heard about Senator Bernie Sanders, the declared socialist who is getting some traction.
Since the campaign began in earnest earlier this year, Mrs. Clinton has had to deal with the double-edged sword of her “inevitability” as the Democrat nominee for President. On the one hand, this has secured her quite a bit of support among Democrat “super delegates” (the Democratic Primary is far less “democratic,” in a way, than the Republican primary. While each state still has a delegation, there are also individuals selected by Party leadership who get to cast votes independent of any elections. These insiders and power brokers are referred to as “super delegates.”). The downside of Mrs. Clinton’s “inevitability” narrative is that, in a system where we like to see competition for leadership, the average voter is not content with merely being told for whom he is to vote.
At the same time as this narrative is playing out, Mrs. Clinton is being saddled with several ongoing-and-intertwined scandals that relate to her time as Secretary of State. On the one hand, yes, some of the furor around the scandals is a product of politics. However, on the other hand, the seeming reality that Mrs. Clinton believed herself, at least to some extent, to be above the rules that applied to other persons thought to be in the public trust is deeply concerning.
Remember, I am partisan about these issues. So, you don’t have to take my word for it. Rather, the most recent storylines surrounding the Clinton Campaign have been focusing on Mrs. Clinton’s declining poll numbers. While she still enjoys a spot at the top of the race, insiders are more concerned that Mrs. Clinton’s favorability rating is at the lowest it has ever been.
Mrs. Clinton is both blessed and cursed to have been in public life for the better part of the last thirty years. To her benefit, she is, regardless of your opinion about her, a known-name. While this name recognition can cut against Mrs. Clinton, at least in the context of the Democratic Primary, she has already reached every single one of her potential voters. This is a serious leg-up over her would-be opponents. The problem with Mrs. Clinton being such a public figure is that we have poll numbers about her favorability that go back to her previous run for the White House in 2008 and back to her time as First Lady and as a Senator. With this perspective, Mrs. Clinton’s popularity rating and her “honesty and trustworthiness” rating have never been lower. This is definitely not something Mrs. Clinton’s campaign staff is happy to be hearing when Mrs. Clinton is trying to put together her last bid for the Presidency.
The Huffington Post, certainly not a friend to Republicans or conservative ideology, keeps the following running compilation of all relevant national polls through its affiliate Pollster:
As you can plainly see, Mrs. Clinton’s poll numbers with respect to her other Democrat opponents has dropped considerably in the last month and a half. While a myriad of factors (two of which will be discussed, below) are playing into this drop, the unspoken reality is that there is a crisis of confidence in Mrs. Clinton’s ability to relate to voters as someone who is trustworthy and electable.
So, what does this mean for the debate this evening? There will be five Democrats on stage: Mrs. Clinton, Senator Sanders, Governor O’Malley, Senator Webb, and Governor Chafee. You can expect that Mrs. Clinton will be the punching bag for all of the other candidates. It make sense. As long as the Vice President stays out of the race, Mrs. Clinton is the candidate to beat. Regardless of how hard the other candidates on stage come after her, Mrs. Clinton’s job in the debate is to show that she can be Presidential, reassure her base that she can handle criticism, and to appear somewhat “human.” (Mrs. Clinton’s campaign staff has repeatedly tried to “relaunch” Mrs. Clinton’s image. The most recent was that they wanted her to have more “planned spontaneity.” Thus giving rise to the ongoing critique that Clinton is being peddled more as a commodity or brand than an actual person.)
So, to summarize: Mrs. Clinton knows her numbers look bad. She knows about the scandals. She needs to be able to field questions about them and appear to answer honestly without scoffing or being dismissive. She needs to appear Presidential because her base is watching to make sure that they can imagine her debating a Republican in the general election. (The Vice President will also be watching to see if he wants to get in the race).
POINT 2: THE BERNIE SANDERS EFFECT
I know that there are some who have worked themselves into a frenzy over Bernie Sanders, but, if I can be a dose of realism, Senator Sanders does not have a 50-state strategy to win the nomination.
If you haven’t heard of the Vermont Senator, he’s an avowed “socialist Democrat” who is proposing nearly 18 Trillion Dollars in new spending. It’s left-populism at its best.
To Senator Sanders’ credit, he is likely the most ideologically consistent candidate in the race for the White House. In this way, and in the way that he has an insular-yet-vocal cult following, he is very much the Democrat version of Ron Paul.
Senator Sanders’ supporters will vehemently disagree with the characterization of his campaign as being ultimately futile. They will point to two factors to support their contention: first, that Senator Sanders looks likely to win in New Hampshire and, perhaps, in Iowa; and second, that Sanders has forced Clinton to tack to the left in order to avoid major defections to Sanders’ campaign.
Let’s deal with the second point first. Recently Mrs. Clinton made two startling policy declarations: first, that she opposes the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline; and second, that she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The Keystone XL project was supported by labor unions but opposed by environmentalists. Clinton supported the TPP in, at least, forty-five interviews prior to her policy change. Can people, in good conscience, change their views on important issues? Certainly. Does changing your mind as your poll numbers are declining and the person gaining on you is solidly to your political left ring of a calculated flip-flop? Almost absolutely.
The change on the TPP is a risk that Clinton is taking that she does not want to get caught in the middle if the Vice President decides to enter the race. If Biden decides not to get in the race, then Mrs. Clinton’s opposition of the deal is not terribly important. She would look like a flip-flopper, but people who support the deal would have nowhere to go other than Mrs. Clinton (as Senator Sanders is more vehemently opposed). However, if Mrs. Clinton would have supported the deal, and the Vice President were to have entered the race, she would have been caught between Sanders’ position of being anti-administration and Biden, who would immediately, for good or for ill, be the representative of the current administration. Therefore, Clinton’s decision to oppose sets her in a better position to differentiate herself from the Vice President if he decides to get in the race.
To the point that Sanders is forcing Clinton to the left, it appears more that the possible entry of the Vice President is causing her to shift her strategy. This may be in some part to stymie the bleeding on her left flank to Sanders’ camp, but it appears to be a fortification against Biden.
With regard to the fact that Sanders looks likely to win in New Hampshire and Iowa, this may very well be the case. Especially if the Vice President enters the race and draws away Clinton’s supporters, Sanders has a very good shot at pulling 30-40% of purely ideological primary voters to his side to get a plurality. It remains unclear where his strategy goes from there. While Sanders has drawn crowds across the country, polling outside of the first two states seems far more consistent with the national narrative of Clinton enjoying a double-digit lead. In the event those numbers continue, Sanders would get a boost out of Iowa and New Hampshire, but would almost certainly falter in the South where Clinton would regain her narrative of inevitability.
Sanders’ only real hope comes in a Biden candidacy that can make significant inroads in the South to puncture Clinton’s delegate firestop. However, even with Biden siphoning from the Clinton campaign, it still looks unlikely that Sanders has any major delegate victories.
POINT 3: THE CANDIDATE WHO IS NOT ON STAGE
While most viewers of tonight’s debate will be tuning in to see Mrs. Clinton and whether she can answer questions while sounding human, the political class and pundits realize that Clinton is actually debating against the shadow of Joe Biden. Certainly Mrs. Clinton will want to make it appear that she is a unifying figure and will go after the “outlandish” comments being made by the Republican field. However, Mrs. Clinton, her advisers, and the people who watch politics know that, if the Vice President enters the race for the nomination, Mrs. Clinton’s path gets a lot longer and the outcome is far murkier. (Certainly if Joe Biden enters the race with Elizabeth Warren as his Vice President, the Clinton campaign would go into crisis mode).
The Vice President has not being doing himself any favors in prolonging his entry into the race. While there is a great deal of bipartisan sympathy for the Vice President’s personal tragedy over the loss of his son, voters need to be given options to research. Moreover, from a practical perspective, both Clinton and Sanders are raising significant sums of money. As Biden dawdles on the sidelines, he continues to lose opportunities to get the fundraising and grassroots apparatus set up to run a national campaign.
The “drop dead” date appears to be October 29th at this point. That’s the day the Georgia State Democratic Party will meet to decide what names to put on the primary ballot. This is followed closely by nearly a dozen other states at the beginning of November. If Biden does not meet these filing deadlines, his campaign would be severely handicapped.
The most likely scenario is that the Vice President and his aides will be watching the First Democratic Debate with an eye to see how Mrs. Clinton holds up under pressure. More importantly, the Vice President wants to see the media and popular reactions to the debate. If Clinton emerges unscathed with rave reviews and a thoroughly trounced Sanders, the climate looks less favorable to a Biden candidacy. However, if the debate turns into a muddy scrum with pundits and Democrat insiders calling the Vice President’s staff to get reactions and reassurances, you can imagine Biden’s team deciding that the Vice President will be the candidate of unity. (Another important date is October 23rd when Mrs. Clinton is expected to testify before the Benghazi commission in the House. While this commission has already been written off by most Democrats as a political witch hunt, quotes like “at this point, what difference does it make” like in her last testimony about the death of an American ambassador, will not play well in the press and will giver her eventual Republican challenger significant fodder.)
Thus, somewhere between tomorrow and the 29th, Biden would almost certainly need to make his decision.
Mrs. Clinton still remains the most likely Democrat to be nominated by her Party. However, with her rising unfavorable rating, her declining poll numbers, and her consistent campaign reboots, she appears vulnerable. Senator Sanders is whipping up support on the left and the looming entry of the Vice President casts a long shadow over the debate.
Be sure to watch Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee in the debates as well. While these men are barely polling at 1% nationally, CNN has decided to give them a podium at the debate. Expect them to use it. (Honestly, this is the big unknown of the debate. Here’s to hoping they make it entertaining).