Hillary Clinton is widely assumed to be considering a presidential run in 2016
Hillary Clinton is widely assumed to be considering a presidential run in 2016

There are few who would argue that Hillary Clinton is anything other than the overwhelming frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2016 if she chooses to run. A common refrain, however, is that we’ve seen this before. In 2008, Ms. Clinton began as the frontrunner before she was overtaken by a younger, more dynamic campaigner: President Barack Obama. In 2016 as well, the argument goes, Ms. Clinton’s frontrunner status does not make her inevitable.

However, the use of the catch-all phrase “frontrunner” obfuscates real differences between Ms. Clinton’s standing in 2008 and 2016. At this point in 2008, she hovered at around 40% in polls of the Democratic primary electorate, with John Edwards (who chose to run) and John Kerry (who did not) each pulling 14%. And while his candidacy was perceived as unlikely, former Vice President Al Gore also earned double-digit support when he was included in polls:

Candidate (# polls) Range Average (when incl.) Average (all)
Hillary Clinton (6) 33-44% 40.0% 40.0%
John Edwards (6) 12-16% 14.5% 14.5%
John Kerry (6) 10-17% 14.2% 14.2%
Al Gore (2) 12-13% 12.5% 4.2%
Joe Biden (5) 5-8% 6.4% 5.3%
Other** 8-18% 11.3% 11.3%
Unsure 8-14% 10.8% 10.8%

Six polls taken between Nov. 2005 and Feb. 2006 by Marist, RT Strategies, and Gallup (two each)

While Ms. Clinton had an undeniable advantage in 2008, her poll numbers then pale in comparison to polls from the comparable period of the 2016 cycle:

Candidate (# polls) Range Average (when incl.) Average (all)
Hillary Clinton (8) 63-73% 66.6% 66.6%
Joe Biden (8) 7-12% 10.1% 10.1%
Elizabeth Warren (8) 6-9% 7.3% 7.3%
Andrew Cuomo (7) 2-5% 2.8% 2.4%
Other 1-9% 4.6% 4.6%
Unsure 6-12% 8.6% 8.6%

Eight polls taken between Nov. 2013 and Feb. 2014 by seven pollsters (two from PPP)

In her worst poll in 2008, Ms. Clinton was pegged at 33%, with Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards at 17% and 15%, combining to essentially match her support. In her worst poll for 2016, Ms. Clinton received support from 63% of respondents, more than tripling the combined support of her nearest rivals, Vice President Biden (12%) and Senator Warren (7%). Put another way, Ms. Clinton trailed the sum of all opponents in 2008, by a margin of 49%-40%. For 2016, she trounces them 67%-25%. So while President Obama could defeat Ms. Clinton by winning over supporters of Kerry, Edwards, and “Other,” her 2016 opponent will have to strip away a large bloc of voters who are already supporting Ms. Clinton’s candidacy.

This level of dominance from a non-incumbent candidate is without precedent in the era of modern polling. Even for the 2000 Democratic nomination, when sitting Vice President Al Gore swept all fifty primaries and caucuses over New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, he sat in a much less definitive position in the pre-midterm polls.

Candidate (# polls) Range Average (when incl.) Average (all)
Al Gore (3) 33-47% 41.7% 41.7%
Bill Bradley (3) 12-14% 13.3% 13.3%
Jesse Jackson (2) 13-16% 14.5% 9.7%
Dick Gephardt (3) 6-8% 7.0% 7.0%
Other 4-11% 8.0% 8.0%
Unsure 13-29% 20.3% 20.3%

Three polls conducted from Sept. 1997 to Jan. 1998 by Gallup, Yankelovich Partners, and NBC/WSJ

So while it would be foolish to completely ignore the possibility of Ms. Clinton losing the Democratic nomination again, this isn’t the movie we’ve seen before. If she loses, she will be losing a lead that is unprecedented in the polling era for a non-incumbent candidate.

** Note: While then-Sen. Obama was not included in any polling in this period, he averaged 21 percent of the vote in the first three polls that included him, in November 2006, placing him second behind Ms. Clinton, who averaged 36 percent, slightly below her position earlier in the year.

Published by JP Meredith

John Meredith is a contributor to The Politic from New York, NY. Contact him at john.meredith@yale.edu.

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