What Makes Hillary Different

Jonathan Bernstein had a good piece up yesterday advising reporters to stop focusing on the question of whether Hillary Clinton will or won’t run in 2016. His argument is that the “will she/won’t she” topic misses the main point about party nominations. She already is running, as are many other people, but only some candidates will make this point publicly known, and only after discussing the idea with potential donors and endorsers and after getting a sense of what the 2016 political environment will look like. The party, broadly speaking, will discourage a lot of potential candidates from running long before the Iowa Caucus or any debates, and it may encourage one or two to run. That’s the nature of the invisible primary.

I totally agree with what Bernstein is saying on this topic, except that I think Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is a bit different. The reason it’s different is that, at least as far as things look for now, the party has already cleared a path for her. Yes, it’s still early, but Democratic party elites have broadly signaled an acceptance of her as the nominee. She will have all the money she wants. The Obama campaign infrastructure has signaled its support for her.

Now, none of this makes a Clinton nomination inevitable. And she also looked very strong at this stage in the 2008 cycle. So, yes, another candidate could emerge (although it’s not obvious who that would be), a scandal could take her down, Democratic elites could decide they’re just not comfortable with her and go looking for someone else, etc. And few people have actually publicly endorsed her yet.

But to the extent that we have signals on this, they’re saying that she’s got the nomination if she wants it. Which means that the main thing standing between her and the Democratic nomination is the question of whether she really wants to do this. Which makes that a pretty good question for the media to be discussing. (Not that anyone really has any insight to offer on the question, of course, but it’s still an important question.)

So, yes, when reporters describe a nomination contest in explicitly candidate-centered terms, as they often do, and ignore the huge influence that party insiders have over who ends up running, they’re missing a lot of the story. But Hillary has a legitimately candidate-centered decision to make, and it doesn’t strike me as wrong to focus on that in her case.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.