Hillary Clinton has glaring weaknesses as a candidate. The historical odds are against her goal: getting a third term in the White House for one party. The Democrats should nonetheless be considered the likely winners if they nominate her.
At the moment, most of the news for Clinton looks grim. Her favorability ratings have been falling for four years straight. Fifty-three percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of her in the latest poll average at the Huffington Post. In August, a Quinnipiac poll found that 61 percent of voters say she’s not honest or trustworthy. Among New Hampshire Democrats, she has lagged behind Bernie Sanders in every poll released to the public since July. Her mishandling of official e-mails as secretary of state, along with her clumsy lies about it, keeps generating unflattering coverage.
Republicans can point to other reasons for optimism. They have control of Congress, most governorships, and most state legislative chambers: Perhaps that means that the country now has a natural Republican majority? They will also benefit from time-for-a-change sentiment. Only once since 1952 has a party won the Electoral College three times in a row. The exception came in 1988, when George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. But voters then were much happier about the state of the country than they are now. In the fall of 1988, most polls found that Americans were slightly more likely to say that the country was “headed in the right direction” than that it was “on the wrong track.” Now, more than twice as many people give the negative answer as give the positive one.
Clinton also lacks an advantage that Barack Obama had in 2008 and 2012: being the first black nominee and then the first black president. Black turnout was higher than usual in both years, and the Democratic share of the black vote was even higher than usual too. If black voters in 2016 act as they did in 2004, during the last pre-Obama election, that change by itself will erase roughly half the Democratic margin in the popular vote from last time.
Against all these reasons for optimism must be set the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the six most recent presidential elections. It may be that Republican victories in legislative and gubernatorial elections don’t carry over to presidential elections for structural reasons. For example, the geographic diffusion of Republican voters helps their party win legislative seats but doesn’t help them win the White House.
One common explanation for the Democrats’ White House winning streak is that demographic trends favor them: Asians and Hispanics, two rapidly growing groups, have leaned increasingly left; young white voters are moving left, too, as Christianity weakens among them. Another explanation is that voters, even ones who are middle-of-the-road ideologically, think Republicans’ priorities are too skewed toward rich people and big business. These are intertwined theories, since the party’s plutocratic image is partly responsible for its weakness among blacks, Hispanics, and young people, all groups that tend to be less prosperous than the national average.
Clinton’s campaign would like the public to warm to her personally, but it does not appear to have any illusions that she can have anything like the charisma Obama did in 2008. Instead its strategy seems to be to bet that the Democratic party’s advantage on demographics and issues can overcome Clinton’s deficiencies as a candidate. When Clinton officially launched her campaign on Roosevelt Island in June, her speech did not contain any memorable statements. Instead it celebrated the elements of the Democratic coalition and championed a series of poll-tested liberal policies.
Clinton’s program includes an increase in the minimum wage, expanded child-care subsidies, universal preschool, mandatory paid leave, and legislation to make it easier to sue employers for sex discrimination. These are policies that deliver concrete benefits to large groups of voters and signal that she is on the side of women, families, poor people, and employees.
As a nominee, she would spend some time making the case for these policies. It seems likely, though, that she will spend at least as much time using them to wage a negative campaign against the Republicans as the enemies of those policies and, by extension, of their beneficiaries. She will also use Republican opposition to Obamacare, including the contraceptive mandate it enabled, for this purpose. If she is running next fall, she will bank on the appeal of these policies and fear of the Republicans to keep black turnout high and increase turnout among single women, who also vote heavily Democratic.
Republicans have very little in the way of popular policy proposals to counter the appeal of liberalism. The Republican presidential candidates, by and large, are not offering conservative ideas that would give any direct help to families trying to make ends meet (although Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have at least offered reforms that could make health insurance more affordable for most people). Their tax-cut proposals are almost all focused on people who make much more than the average voter. So far, Republicans do not seem to be even trying to erode the Democratic advantage on middle-class economics.
The Democratic nominee will also probably benefit from a slight edge in the Electoral College. Eighteen states, with 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, have voted Democratic in each of the last six elections. Some analysts call these states a “blue wall” that Republicans will not easily break through. That’s overstated — Pennsylvania, which is part of that wall, has been getting less Democratic — but a popular-vote tie would probably mean a Clinton victory.
Finally, Clinton will need some luck to win, as any candidate does. It may materialize. The economy is, if not roaring, as good as it has been since the crisis hit in 2008.
Clinton could, of course, be nominated and then lose. But her bet is that the liberal coalition will show up and that swing voters who do not love her will nonetheless decide that they prefer her to a Republican party out of touch with most people’s concerns. It’s not a bad bet.