There’s a scene in an episode of The West Wing which flashes back to an early campaign meeting between (eventual President) Josiah Bartlett and his staff. The staff lays out the strategy for the upcoming Democratic primaries and tells Bartlett, “You can’t win New Hampshire.” Bartlett (the fictional governor of New Hampshire, whose fictional family has ties to the state that go back to the actual American Revolution) gets miffed and says, “I’m going to win New Hampshire.” The staff gently points out that he’s so popular within the state that he’s expected to win New Hampshire. Not only is there no value in winning the state primary, anything less than a landslide victory would, in effect, be seen as a loss.
This scene keeps popping into my head as we swing into the primary season (and not because a disturbing number of Democrats have bought the fantasia of an uber-liberal President becoming astoundingly popular.) In this perilous beauty pageant in which we select our next President, the way expectations are either met or not met is as important as, y’know, being qualified to hold the office. And the notion of being expected to win can be most perilous.
After the 2012 election, I found myself a tad mystified (not discouraged, mind you, but mystified) by one aspect of the election. Analysis of the campaign almost universally agreed that Mitt Romney’s extended fight for the Republican nomination had hurt his general election chances. It forced him to spend money he would badly need in the fall campaign and to embrace donors that were a little further to the right than Romney was comfortable with (which led indirectly to the “47% of Americans don’t pay taxes” debacle.) And yet in 2008, Barack Obama faced an even longer fight for the Democratic nomination and post-election analysis focused on much that helped his campaign. The thinking being that Obama was forced to campaign in traditionally Republican states like Indiana and North Carolina in order to get the nomination. The opportunity to make himself known in places like that may have led to those states flipping to the Democratic column that November.
Beyond those nuts-and-bolts factors, there was also the general perception that Romney came out of the nomination fight as a damaged candidate leading a badly fractured party. Meanwhile, Obama had come out of the 2008 nomination fight as a survivor who was going to be a formidable presence in the fall. How could one fight strengthen a candidate while a similar fight significantly weakened another? The answer I kept coming back to was: the perception of the front-runner.
For much of 2007, the Democratic front-runner, by a large margin, was Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama did not even come close to her in the polls until just before the Iowa caucuses. His toppling of Clinton there started the nomination fight, in which Obama’s superior ground game eventually outfoxed Clinton’s traditional big donors and endorsements strategy. It was the moment when Obama created the 21st century election campaign. But because Obama had not been burdened with the expectation of being the nominee, his victory in the primary fight seemed like his party answering a popular call; giving in to a groundswell for this candidate.
Romney, on the other hand, was considered a 2012 front-runner from about the day after the 2008 election. When Sarah Palin flamed out (largely due to being, y’know, Sarah Palin) Romney became THE front-runner. However, beginning in the summer of 2011, his party became infatuated with, at various points, Donald Trump (remember him?) Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Gingrich again and Chris Christie (who wasn’t even IN the race.) If reports had circulated that the party was looking into the feasibility of a Zombie Reagan, nobody would have been surprised. Eventually, they gave in to the inevitable and made Romney the nominee. But it wasn’t exactly a Caesar-crossing-the-Rubicon moment, for either Romney or the party. And the general public seemed to sense that.
We’ve been watching this same thing play out again in the last year, involving one of the same players for an earlier drama. Hillary Clinton enjoyed what seemed to be an insurmountable lead in the polls during the spring of 2015. However, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has steadily eaten into Clinton’s lead, punctuated by their near-tie in Iowa and Sanders’ landslide victory in the New Hampshire primary. Suddenly, the race for the Democratic nomination, previously seen as a coronation, is an actual race again.
Certainly, the coronation element plays a part in this. Party members like to feel they have a hand in deciding the next nominee and that said nominee has the approval of the entire party. The party elites coalescing around a candidate is seen as suspect by the rank-and-file. By that argument, it’s necessary that Clinton go through SOME kind of trial in order to gain the nomination.
And while the media is always a convenient whipping boy in these cases, it really does have a culpability in this. As Nate Silver at 538.com pointed out, as early as last summer, you can find Bigfoot easier than you can find a consistently positive news cycle about Hillary Clinton. Leaving aside the ongoing non-issues of Bengazi and the Secretary of State’s email account, Sanders’ every move in the polls has been covered to the extent that one would think he’s been leading since last summer rather than having NEVER led a reliable national poll. Add the Bengazi and email kerfuffles back into the mix, along with the manufactured stories about Clinton’s campaign being in trouble and what you’ve got is a steady drip of support away from the obvious front-runner.
Now, this is not to dismiss the culpability of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns in this. Clinton’s campaign strategy is based largely on her being the most qualified candidate in either party (a great strategy for a job interview, but not, apparently, for a Presidential election.) Meanwhile, Sanders has managed to excite his base by going after Wall Street fat cats and issuing a series of crazy campaign promises that would make Homer Simpson proud. While Clinton’s ground game is significantly better than it was eight years ago, she’s got that Al Gore/Bob Dole/George H.W. Bush thing of being a potentially-great office holder who simply doesn’t connect with the public. Even if she’s able to hold off Sanders’ challenge, this may present a serious problem in the fall.
Which brings us to how all this might look come the general election. Certainly, there are a lot of factors that will be weighed before November, not the least of which is who the actual nominees will be. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s unlikely front-runner status of last summer has continued into the primary season. Should Trump emerge as the nominee, it would be hard to say he’s suffering from any kind of front-runner syndrome, since it would be hard to come up with a less-likely nominee in either major party’s history. And any other Republican nominee can paint himself as a comeback story. Either way, it might (MIGHT) give the Republican candidate an edge over Clinton, (at least in this area) since it now looks like she’ll be facing an extended fight for the Democratic nomination. And if Bernie Sanders should become the Democratic nominee, all bets would be off.
Certainly, neither of them would be seen as the front-runner.