Her favorable ratings have fallen. The investigation into her private email server is tightening. Bernie Sanders is drawing huge crowds. Joe Biden is considering one last White House bid. Al Gore has advisers who have friends who’ve told reporters that they might have heard about conversations spitballing about a possible Gore run.
And as for the pundits - like, yes, yours truly - who once said that Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, well, did we expect that Sanders would top a New Hampshire poll? (Truthfully, I did not.) Did we even see the email scandal coming? (Well, I expected something Clintonesque, but the specifics have surprised.) For that matter, did we foresee Donald Trump’s swift ascent on the GOP side of things? (No, I didn’t think he would run at all.)
So with that kind of track record from the soothsaying profession, isn’t it possible that our entire “Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee” thesis is about to become a casualty of State Department scandal, Clinton fatigue, her weaknesses as a campaigner, the populist temper of the times?
Many things are possible. But to this soothsayer, it feels like a good time to double down on that thesis instead, and make my prediction as firm and wiggle-free as possible: Hillary’s going to win the nomination, and it isn’t going to be particularly close.
First and foremost, she’s going to win the nomination because she only needs Democratic votes to win it, and Democrats still like Hillary - a lot. She looks today like a somewhat weaker general-election candidate than she did six months ago, and the Sanders surge has been fun to watch. But mostly he’s just been consolidating the party’s natural anti-Clinton bloc - white, well-educated, and quite left-wing - rather than making deep inroads into her national support.
That anti-Hillary bloc is overrepresented in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where Sanders’ poll numbers are particularly robust, but it isn’t the basis for a winning coalition; not even close. For that, you would need a candidate capable of performing the same feat as Obama in 2008, and winning not only white liberals but a large share of minority support (an overwhelming share of the black vote, in his case) as well.
And none of Hillary’s possible rivals, real and hypothetical, are well-suited to building that kind of coalition. Sanders is already enduring left-on-left clashes with Black Lives Matter activists, the hapless Martin O'Malley is associated with Baltimore policing, and given the front-runner’s precommitment to a voting rights push and criminal justice reform, it’s not clear what Biden would offer minority voters to make them reconsider their strong support for Clinton.
Any other path to the nomination, meanwhile, requires persuading white Democratic women to turn on Hillary en masse - an even more unlikely scenario, it’s fair to say, than imagining Biden as a Rainbow Coalition candidate.
What’s more, even if the path were there, late-entering white knights have a simply terrible track record in modern presidential politics: See Fred Thompson, Rick Perry, and Wesley Clark for recent cautionary tales. And all of those men were leaping into a campaign with a much weaker front-runner, joining a more divided field. It may be possible to get into a primary race late and win; I thought someone might have done it against Mitt Romney in 2012, given how much the GOP base pined for an alternative. But against a candidate as well-funded, widely-endorsed and, again, popular within her own party as Hillary? I think not.
Which is why any “Hillary Loses” scenario has to involve some extra-political event, some scandal beyond anything the Clintons have endured before. And here I’m afraid that I am a bit cynical: While the email scandal is a serious business, I simply do not believe that the Obama Justice Department is going to indict the former secretary of state and Democratic front-runner for mishandling classified information, even if the offenses involved would have sunk a lesser figure’s career or landed her in jail.
And to continue to wax cynical, I think it would take an indictment of herself, not merely an investigation that ultimately finds a fall guy in Clinton’s IT team or even among her intimates, to turn Democratic primary voters against Hillary or force her from the race.
Because absent an indictment - or, I suppose, an email showing her deliberately accepting payola from Vladimir Putin - the email affair, no less than the shady Clinton Foundation dealings, looks like the kind of scandal that Clinton supporters have long conditioned themselves to justify: An inappropriate and self-interested episode, clumsily covered over, but at once murky and slow-dripping enough for Democratic partisans to shrug, say, “LOLBenghazi” and move on.
And if they prove me wrong? Well, save this column: Come the Gore Inaugural, you can make me eat my words.