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Presidential Politics and Predictions: Be Ready to Be Wrong

Markos Moulitsas at Dailykos has a thoughtful piece up on the 2016 presidential primary for the Democrats, arguing that Hillary is inevitable; Elizabeth Warren isn’t running; and that the latter fact is actually a good thing for progressives. I agree with Markos that Warren is a major asset right where she is — her Senate seat gives her a great platform to drive the progressive cause forward, now and for many years to come. He is right on target that she is a genuinely good legislator, with an amazing instinct for how to get things done there given how short a time she has been a politician, and that a presidential race could hurt her effectiveness in the Senate (although I think Markos overstates that point, there have been many senators who have run for president, lost, and came back to the chamber just as or more effective than they were before). I am an old friend of Elizabeth, and I can also verify that she is not being cagey or coy when she says she isn’t running. Elizabeth is the most genuine person I have ever known with the title of politician, and everyone should take her at her word that she does not want to or plan to run. Here’s the thing about Elizabeth: It isn’t about ego and ambition with her. Most of the politicians I have known in my life who have come to me for advice as to whether they should run for office, the questions are almost always about whether they can win, what would it take to win, is it the right time, how would they raise the money, what’s the winning electoral coalition, who should they hire to run the campaign, what should their message and lead issues be. Rarely, but every so often, a potential candidate will muse about whether their particular skills were better in a management role (president or governor) versus a legislative role. When I was talking with Elizabeth in the months leading up to the running-for-Senate decision, we spent almost no time on those kinds of questions. What she was focused on instead was where she could make the biggest difference in changing the country on behalf of everyday people, as a senator or as an organization leader, author, movement leader. Until she became convinced that the Senate was the place she could make the biggest difference, she had no intention of running. For now, I know she believes that being in the Senate is the best place for her to fight the good fight. So there is a lot to be said for Markos’ article, he makes a lot of great points, but I want to push back on this Hillary is inevitable thing, because I think it is dangerous for the entire Democratic party (including Hillary, frankly) and for the progressive cause. And, to be blunt, it is just completely wrong when you look at history. Hillary may yet get a coronation, sailing to victory with little or no opposition in the primary, but I’m not at all clear that would be good for her general election campaign. The closest thing we have had to that in the recent past was Gore’s relatively easy win over Bradley (although it was harder than it looked), and Gore didn’t exactly roll into the general election geared up and ready for battle. And the lack of a serious fight would stifle the kind of serious and important debate the party needs to have over its policy direction in the years to come, papering over the very real populist vs. Wall Street Democrat divide that exists. It would also be pretty awful for the base and progressive movement, giving them nothing in the presidential cycle for a year and a half (until the general election) to fight for, rally around, or just be very interested in politically. So I don’t think an easy win for Hillary is automatically a good thing, even for her. But I also don’t think it is that likely. If you look at the history of presidential politics in the modern era, the last half-century-plus, the strongly favored frontrunner almost never cruises easily to victory. Big stuff, little stuff, insurgencies popping up out of nowhere, scandals, stumbles — frontrunners, even the dominant ones, have lost a lot more often than they won, and generally even when they have won, they had a hell of a tough road getting there. In fact, in only two of the past 11 Democratic presidential primaries where there wasn’t an unchallenged incumbent president has the clear frontrunner at this moment in the four-year cycle gone on to win the nomination, and in one of those two situations (Mondale), he had a far tougher fight than expected. In 1960, LBJ was the clear frontrunner, the dominant figure in national Democratic politics. He had by far the most important endorsements, and the strong support of the party establishment in most of the states. Hubert Humphrey was widely thought of as the only guy with a decent shot of beating him. Jack Kennedy was a lightly regarded upstart, with his youth and Catholicism considered obstacles way too big to overcome. In 1968, LBJ — this time as the incumbent president — was of course going to win the nomination hands down. He completely dominated the party machinery, had limitless campaign money stashed away, was further ahead in the polls than Hillary. Gene McCarthy’s campaign was considered worse than a joke, it was assumed to be a short-lived token protest movement. My first political memory, as a 7-year-old just getting interested in politics, was seeing that LBJ speech where he stunned the world by announcing he would not run again, and I will never forget the looks of shock on my parents’ faces. In 1972, Ed Muskie was the overwhelming frontrunner — way ahead in the polls, the money, the endorsements, everything. A silly media frenzy over whether he cried, and a hippie volunteer army for McGovern in New Hampshire, were all it took to quickly dislodge him from the race. In 1976, Teddy Kennedy was the frontrunner in the polls but did not run. There were several Senate heavyweights who were thought to be top tier candidates, all of them faltered. Absolutely no one predicted Jimmy Carter. The 1980 race was the only serious primary against an incumbent in modern presidential election history, and oddly, Teddy Kennedy actually started with a huge lead in the polls, as Carter was pretty unpopular with the Democratic base. But after Kennedy’s disastrous 60 Minutes interview, everything reversed and Kennedy never recovered. In 1984, Mondale was the overwhelming favorite, as far ahead as Hillary in the polls and with every major group and most politicians’ endorsements. He didn’t make any big mistakes, ran a strong early campaign, and easily won Iowa as predicted, beating Gary Hart 50-17. But Democratic primary voters were restless, bored with Mondale’s safe establishment-mandated coronation, and looking for someone new. When Hart came out of the pack of candidates with a surprising second place finish, he trounced Mondale in NH and was on a roll, winning most of the next several primaries. Without some stumbles, Hart would have been the nominee. Speaking of stumbles, Hart’s big one on his friend’s boat, the Monkey Business, with Donna Rice forced him to withdraw in 1988 after being the overwhelming favorite in the early polling. Gephardt, who had been working Iowa for years, became the favorite after that, but last minute entry Dukakis raised a lot more money than anyone else, and Gephardt split the populist vote with Simon, Gore, and Jesse Jackson. Gephardt won Iowa, Dukakis finished a pretty anemic 3rd there, but the late-entry candidate who had been at 1% in the polls ended up easily winning the nomination in the end. In 1992, Cuomo was the strong favorite in the polling and among pundits right up until the time he decided not to run (quite late in the cycle, he was still debating with himself in the fall of ‘91). After that, Clinton was one of the favorites until he stumbled, after which everyone pronounced his campaign over, after which he came back and won the nomination. (And after he won the nomination, up until the Democratic convention no one thought he had a shot of beating Bush.) In 1996, no one challenged President Clinton for the nomination after he decisively beat the Republicans in the budget showdown. In 2000, there was the only primary fight in this entire saga that went pretty much as predicted, with Vice President Gore keeping his early lead and turning back a challenge from Bill Bradley, although a lot of us who closely followed the race think that if Bradley hadn’t spent too many resources contesting the Iowa contest where he was never going to win, that he would have beaten Gore in NH (he only lost 51-47). In that scenario, Bradley might well have made that race a hell of a fight. In 2004, Hillary Clinton was way ahead in the early polling but did not run, and there was no real favorite. In the early days of the race, it was thought that Gephardt would win Iowa and Kerry would win NH, but then both faded and Dean came on from nowhere (literally 0 or 1% in the early polling, with no one predicting he had a chance) to a big lead in the polls, money, and endorsements. When Dean made some late mistakes, and Kerry and Edwards put together a late surge, the race was reshaped again. Finally in 2008, people have already forgotten how inevitable Hillary was seen then. At this time of the cycle then, July of 2006, it looked unlikely that Obama would even run. And throughout 2007, she had a wide lead in the polls and endorsements. That’s the track record, folks: 11 contested primaries over the last 54 years, only one of them turned out pretty much as expected, and only two where the pre-season favorite even won. Anyone saying Hillary is a sure thing based on a big lead in polling, her fundraising advantages, and her status as favorite doesn’t know his presidential election history very well. Right now, the polls mean nothing, the establishment support means nothing. Frontrunners decide not to run, stumble in the early going, listen to the wrong advisers in creating their campaign strategy, get upset in the early going. Even the ones who do most things right and don’t have strong initial opposition, like Mondale, sometimes run into an electorate that doesn’t like being told they have to vote for the frontrunner.

I’m sure people will read this history and say, “Yeah, well, this time is different, Hillary is so far ahead that no one else has a chance.” That could well be, but again: don’t count on it. LBJ in ‘68, Muskie in ‘72, Mondale ‘84, and Hart ‘88 were all just as dominant or more dominant in the early going, and none had superstar opposition going against them. The one thing I know for sure from my years in and studying presidential politics is that it is utterly unpredictable — crazy stuff happens out of the blue all the time. Do you really think it is inconceivable that the Clintons might be engulfed in a scandal? That Hillary is immune from serious mistakes? That a candidate with nothing going in the polls might catch a wave and suddenly raise a bunch of netroots money? Hillary is a good bet to win this election, I sure wouldn’t predict anyone against her — but please, Markos, don’t bet your house on it. None of this is to argue that Elizabeth should run for president. To run for the presidency is about the most brutal thing a sane and genuine person can do to themselves, and Elizabeth is most assuredly both of those things. If a person doesn’t want to run, all that craziness is unbearable, and right now she doesn’t want to do it. She knows that she is having a huge impact right where she is, that she can move our national politics in a more progressive direction while also being a great legislator, that she can help build a powerful new progressive populist movement by staying where she is — all of those things Markos said were true. If she ever changed her mind and did decide to run for president, this time, next time, whenever, I would personally drop everything I was doing and go to the barricades for her, as would tens of thousands of other activists, but I am also completely happy in supporting her in staying in the lane she has chosen for herself. Having said that, though, it would be such a huge mistake for anyone — most especially Hillary, but anyone else analyzing this race — to think this race is over six months before it has even begun. You just don’t know what is going to happen next, and that fact truly is the only thing in this presidential race that is actually a lock.

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