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The Next Clinton Campaign

The campaign can matter, and Hillary Clinton has already won the parts where it does.
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Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Jason Zengerle had a wonderful piece at New York magazine last week assessing Hillary Clinton's strengths and weaknesses as a presidential candidate. The piece draws on a good deal of political science and notes that, even while she has had some awkward moments in her various campaigns, it's not always clear whether such moments actually affect people's votes. And besides, we largely remember her 2008 campaign as awkward because she lost; Barack Obama had some awkward moments as well, but those are seen as aberrations because he won. It's quite possible Clinton's no worse a campaigner than many others, and may actually be better than most.

I've written a bit about this in recent weeks, but just to sum up what we know about campaign effects, they're not very powerful, at least in general elections. That is, most of what candidates and campaigns can directly control—the candidate's skills and strengths, advertising, issue stances, speeches, debate performances, campaign themes, etc.—just don't affect voters very much, and when they do, it's only for a very brief time. This is because a) the two major parties tend to nominate competent candidates who roughly match each other's strengths; b) the campaigns act simultaneously, meaning that a lot of their efforts end up canceling each other's out; c) most voters pay only fleeting attention, if any, to day-to-day political events; and d) the effects of the political fundamentals—the economy and war/peace—are enormous and tend to overwhelm other factors.

Clinton has already demonstrated considerable political skills in becoming what she is today: the de facto Democratic nominee for president in 2016, more than a year before the convention that will make it official.

That doesn't mean campaigns never matter! Indeed, they can matter quite a bit in primary elections and caucuses, where candidates are just running against other people within the same party. The fundamentals don't really apply here, so candidate performances, spending, endorsements, and other matters can prove pivotal. Rick Perry's disastrous debate performance in 2011 was extremely costly to his attempt at the nomination. Hillary Clinton's decision to under-prioritize caucus states in 2008 may well have cost her the Democratic nomination that year.

And as Jonathan Bernstein reminds us, Clinton has already demonstrated considerable political skills in becoming what she is today: the de facto Democratic nominee for president in 2016, more than a year before the convention that will make it official. This is no small feat. No one who is not a sitting president or vice president has ever pulled this off in modern presidential nominations history.

This is not just due to no one else having jumped in yet. As Harry Enten reports, Clinton has the endorsements of 27 of the United States Senate's 46 Democrats. No other non-incumbent has come close to pulling that level of insider support so early in the campaign in the modern era. Neither Bob Dole nor Al Gore ever reached that level of support within their party even by the end of the primary season. If no other serious candidate has jumped in the Democratic race so far, it's because these endorsements have communicated to them loud and clear that the party has already made up its mind.

We could say that this is just a matter of Democratic party insiders picking Hillary Clinton and seeking to discourage everyone else. But it would be a mistake to deny her any agency in this process. She's always been a special case: the path from first lady to senator to secretary of State to presidential candidate is not a well-worn one. She's long had her detractors within her party, which is a big part of the reason that Obama was able to deprive her of the nomination in 2008. But she's worked tirelessly to build on her support and mollify detractors, to woo endorsers and funders, to win over the Democratic campaign leaders who worked against her in 2008, and to convince influential insiders that the party and the country are ready for her. This requires serious skill, and she's basically done it better than anyone else in modern history.

What will she need to actually win the presidency in 2016? She'll have money and competent staff. She'll have solid debating skills. But again, those things won't make a huge difference in the fall of 2016. What she'll really need is a favorable economic climate, and that's beyond her control. 

There's a part of a presidential campaign where candidate skills make a big difference. At least on the Democratic side, that part has already happened, and Hillary Clinton won. What she'll need from here on are favorable fundamentals, and there's very little she can do to affect those.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.