She keeps putting obstacles in her own path, but Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to become our next president.
The headlines screaming “Clinton’s Support Erodes” are true, but only in a relative sense. In the contest for the Democratic nomination, according to the polls, she has slid all the way from “prohibitive favorite” to something like “strong favorite” – not bad, given the way she has hobbled herself with the email scandal.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll gives a clear view of Clinton’s status. Among registered voters who are Democrats or lean toward that party, Clinton is at 42 percent while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is at 24 percent and Vice President Joe Biden at 21 percent. Since July, according to the Post-ABC News poll, Clinton’s support has fallen 21 points. So yes, her campaign has reason to be concerned. But not alarmed.
The saving grace for Clinton is that only half of that lost support has gone to Sanders, who is running a smart and effective campaign, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. The other half has gone to Biden, who is not running a campaign at all – and may never do so.
In his recent media appearances, Biden has revealed his profound grief over the death of his son Beau. No one who watched him last week on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” could come away thinking that Biden is eager to run.
“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president and, two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this,’” he told Colbert. “And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.”
If you take Biden at his word and leave him out of the equation, Clinton’s support leaps to 56 percent, according to the Post-ABC News poll, while Sanders’ increases only slightly to 28 percent.
The challenge for Sanders is that while he is hugely popular with young voters and progressives, he has not connected with other key segments of the Democratic Party coalition. In August, a Gallup survey found that Clinton had a favorable rating of 80 percent among African-Americans compared to just 23 percent for Sanders. This doesn’t reflect any particular antipathy toward the Vermont senator. Rather, it’s because just 33 percent of African-Americans told Gallup they were familiar with him.
Am I ignoring the big picture? Have I somehow missed the fact that the major themes of the campaign thus far have been disgust with politics as usual and rejection of establishment candidates?
No, it’s just that I believe the internal dynamics of the two parties are quite different. Clinton fatigue among Democrats is one thing, but the total anarchy in the Republican Party is quite another.
Back to the Post-ABC News poll: A full 33 percent of Republican or GOP-leaning registered voters support billionaire Donald Trump for their party’s nomination and another 20 percent support retired surgeon Ben Carson. That’s more than half the party rejecting not only the establishment’s favored choices but any contender who has held political office.
Indeed, when asked what kind of person they would like to see as the next president, more than 70 percent of Democratic-leaning voters said they want “someone with experience in how the political system works.” But more than half of GOP-leaning voters, and a stunning 64 percent of self-described “conservative” Republicans, want “someone from outside the existing political establishment.”
This is terrible news for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz and the other current or former officeholders in the GOP race. It’s good news for Clinton, because if she gets the nomination she will likely face either a novice whose qualifications and temperament are in question or a veteran politician struggling to consolidate his own fractious party’s support.
All of this assumes that Clinton doesn’t find a way to defeat herself. And yes, I realize this is a dangerous year for making assumptions.
I’m hard-pressed to imagine how Clinton and her team could have done a worse job of handling the controversy over her State Department emails. Instead of getting the whole truth out at once, they have let it emerge ever so slowly – and kept a damaging story alive.
Clinton’s biggest task is clear: Get out of her own way.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.