This month’s disastrous loss for Democrats in the midterm election is raising questions about the future of the party’s chief surrogate and standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, as the leading choice for the 2016 Democratic nomination. While nationally, Democrats are in the middle of conducting an autopsy of this year’s race, Clinton supporters remain cautiously optimistic about her chances, while at the same time leaving the door slightly more open to support an alternative.
“I think she would be an extraordinary candidate, and I think she would win,” said one Jewish Democratic insider who asked not to be identified by name. “Strictly on the basis of what her qualifications are, you have somebody who knows what it means to be president from every possible angle. I would be very pleased if she were the nominee. If she isn’t, I guess that there are other Democrats who are also strong, but I think their road will be harder.”
Democrats originally felt that the inroads they made with various key constituencies during President Barack Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns would hold and could be depended upon to support other Democratic candidates. This strategy hinged on recent demographic changes occurring in many traditional “red” or “purple” states that most analysts felt were a sign of a power shift for future elections. This, in conjunction with the superior collection of voter data and other information essential in get-out-the-vote efforts and the Democratic machine, made the Democrats appear unbeatable.
Political analyst Bill Schneider, speaking on a conference call organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council on Nov. 6, listed some of the groups that made up the core of Obama’s coalition and led to his victories. His list includes Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, working women, single mothers, individuals with higher educations, LGBT voters, environmentalists, Jews and the “unchurched” – a growing number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation and often espouse liberal values.
In his campaigns, Obama received higher than average support from these demographic groups, many of which have not affected outcomes in previous elections and suffer from notoriously low turnout, especially in midterm elections.
“One way of putting it is that after 40 long years in the wilderness, like the Jews liberated from Egypt, the McGovern, coalition from 1972 finally came to power,” said Schneider.
As usual, most campaigns simply purchased or rented supporter lists from previous victories and depended heavily on narrowly tailored voters, targeting them rather than seeking out new supporters. Campaign officials believed that appealing to those voters to come to the polls in contested states like Georgia, Iowa, Colorado, Kentucky and South Dakota, to name just a few, would combine with the sea change in demographics and match the traditional mostly older, white, male majorities of Republican supporters.
This narrowly tailored approach, combined with a focus on local issues, local family ties and name recognition, went head to head with a GOP strategy of nationalizing the election – making every race a referendum on President Obama’s policies.
In light of the failure of the Democratic strategy, some are concerned that Obama’s achievement of turning out atypical voters was an anomaly and question whether these same groups would again turn out en masse to support another Democratic presidential nominee – perhaps someone more traditional like Clinton, who despite being a woman, is still viewed as a 90s-era politician and consummate Washington, D.C., insider.
“You put [the Obama voters] together, and you’ve got a good coalition. Obama has been able to rally it. Can any other Democrat rally it?” Schneider asked. “I think Hillary Clinton probably can but it hasn’t really been tested. In the primaries, of course, she split a lot of those voters with Obama, but I think that coalition has grown, it has become important, and it’s really defined the Democratic Party as a more liberal party than it ever was in the past.”
Due to the president’s unpopularity and low approval ratings, Hillary and Bill Clinton were last election’s top surrogates for Democrats running in tough races. The Clintons stumped for Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Bruce Braley in Iowa, Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, among many more Senate and House candidates, and drew large numbers to their rallies.
Political organizations such as Ready for Hillary PAC – a political action committee not allowed to officially coordinate with the candidate or her official political action committee – quickly responded to her signals of which candidates to support by deploying their own “Get Out The Vote” staffers in must-win races.
Despite the effort, more than half of all the candidates Clinton supported, lost.
To be fair, it wasn’t the Clinton’s fault. Many of the congressional seats that were lost, especially in the Senate, were in traditionally red states – most in states in which Romney won and were held by Democrats because of the Democratic wave that brought Obama to power in 2008.
That, combined with the national focus of the race and the president’s approval rating in the low 40 percent range, made it unlikely that any Democratic surrogate could have been expected to change the country’s mood dramatically this year.
“The problem here is voters see President Obama as ineffectual,” said Schneider. “He comes across as a president who doesn’t deliver, which is one reason why Democrats faced a drop-off of support among some of the president’s core supporters.”
To Democrats in the Senate, the loss signaled that they needed to do more to re-energize those supporters and their solution appears to be a plan to move the heart of the party to the left where they think these voters are. During leadership elections for the new Congress last week, outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) created leadership positions for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) – two women seen as heading the left wing of the Democratic Party.
Reid created a new post for Warren, making her the “strategic adviser” to the Democratic Policy and Communications Center. The choice of Warren, a progressive firebrand and former Harvard professor, was touted as a strategy for remodeling the Democrats’ message and bring in fresh ideas.
“I think the groups that are looking to have their needs addressed, are going to be looking for candidates to address those needs,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I think that communities that have a particular investment in immigration reform are going to be looking to both policies and promises on immigration reform; constituencies that want to make sure that they have access to health care and retirement benefits and reproductive choice are going to be looking for candidates that will address those things.
“I have every confidence that whoever the Democratic nominee is, that the answers to those questions will be positive.”
Warren, who many see as a more liberal alternative to Clinton and a possible 2016 candidate, graciously accepted the job, but insisted that she was not considering running for the 2016 nomination, according to Politico. But this far from the election, it may not be her final decision.
Many liberals hope this is the case and that Warren may rethink the possibility of a run. Yet, unlike with the potential Republican primary field which has been forming for a few years now, there are few liberal candidates who are considered serious competition for her. This wing of the party also thinks that Clinton might not be liberal enough to motivate their key constituencies.
Moline believes that this is just a reflection of the nation’s political climate.
“I have a thermostatic dial on my shower, so I know approximately what temperature the water that is coming out of my shower head is supposed to be. When it’s cold outside, in order to get a warm shower, I have to turn it up a little higher, and when it’s warm outside I can afford to turn it a little lower,” Moline said. “So the fact is that I don’t think there has been a significant shift in the agenda of the Democrats. I think it’s been a matter of degree, trying to take the temperature of the electorate.”
Yet, Moline said that he doesn’t think that a significant partisan shift is “ever wise,” except in cases of a national emergency, as the goal of most elections – especially presidential ones – is to attract independent voters.
“I don’t anticipate it, and I don’t advise it,” said Moline. “I think anything we do that isolates part of the base is inadvisable. I think if that happened, it would be bad for the party and it would be worse for America.”
Still many on both sides of the aisle believe Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee and still would have the best chance to win. This same conventional wisdom from political talking heads existed in 2008, prior to her run, but the little-known, first-term senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, easily defeated the “inevitable Clinton machine.”
The Democratic insider thinks that it’s unlikely to be the case now, as having had a black president, the insider feels the nation will look to a woman.
“There was buzz about Obama from the beginning. I think there was a constituency that was motivated by the excitement of electing a black man being president of the United States. And in my opinion, he’s a better orator than [Clinton], and I think that had something to do with it,” the insider said.
Last week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, one of the Clintons’ closest confidantes, let slip that he expects Clinton to make an announcement on whether she is running within the next 60 days.
It is very likely that the next election will again be a referendum on President Obama’s job and another bad year for national Democrats, as traditionally, a vote for change usually means a turn toward the other party. Unless congressional Republicans’ succeed in breaking the deadlock that has turned off American voters, Clinton will have a much harder time fighting in the general election as the Democratic nominee – based on the results of the Democrats’ strategy earlier this month.