Hillary Clinton may yet show that precedents are there to be broken, writes Robert Philpot
It was once an apparently iron law of American politics that you could not make it to the White House without first winning the New Hampshire primary.
Not everybody who managed to persuade the voters of this small north-eastern state to support them for their party’s nomination subsequently became president, but fail to win the backing of the famously flinty New Hampshire electorate and your campaign was perceived to be dead in the water.
All that changed in 1992 when Bill Clinton lost New Hampshire but ended up in the White House 11 months later. Indeed, it was the then-Arkansas governor’s surprisingly strong second-place finish which enabled him to don the self-proclaimed mantle of the ‘Comeback Kid’ and revive his scandal-hit presidential bid.
Eight years ago the voters of New Hampshire rushed to the Clintons’ aid once again, giving Hillary Clinton a second chance after her humiliating loss in Iowa the previous week. Ultimately, that lifeline proved insufficient. But by losing to Clinton in New Hampshire and then beating John McCain in November’s general election, Barack Obama proved that the road to the White House did not necessarily run through the granite state.
This month, Clinton is likely to be hoping that the precedent set by her husband and exploited by her former boss still holds. Current polls suggest that Bernie Sanders, her unexpectedly resilient leftwing rival for the Democratic nomination, will narrowly win New Hampshire. And with some pundits suggesting that, despite her poll lead, the enthusiasm of Sanders’ young, liberal grassroots supporters may power him to an upset win in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton will be scouring the history books for comfort.
Certainly, a loss for Clinton in Iowa on 1 February followed by a defeat on 9 February in New Hampshire would dent the air of inevitability which surrounds her becoming the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Despite their relatively small populations, and the fact that neither looks like America demographically, Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy an outsize role in the nominating process: both have played critical parts in making and breaking presidents and presidential hopefuls. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson both opted not to seek re-election after performing poorly in New Hampshire. Victory for the obscure former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, in Iowa in 1976 began his journey to the White House; Clinton’s third-place finish in 2008 effectively ended hers.
Nonetheless, Sanders’ victories in the two early-voting states are unlikely to prove terminal to Clinton. In Iowa and New Hampshire, his core supporters – white liberals – constitute a disproportionate share of the Democrat electorate. Thereafter the electoral battle will move to much less propitious ground for the Vermont senator. Take the next two states to vote. According to Real Clear Politics, Clinton is 40 per cent ahead of Sanders in heavily African-American South Carolina; in Nevada, where there is a strong Hispanic vote, he is 20 per cent behind her. As Real Clear Politics has reported, on ‘Super Tuesday’ – when 11 states go to the polls – the going will get even tougher for Sanders. While he may do well in some states – his home state of Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado, for instance – the advantage is with Clinton in many more. Moreover, the states where she is expected to do well, like Texas, send more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than those where Sanders may gain some traction.
Thus whatever momentum Sanders may get out of Iowa and New Hampshire could well come to a grinding halt one month later. If he survives ‘Super Tuesday’ – and the expectations game may be critical here – Sanders will then catch another break when Maine and Washington have their say. However, in 2008 it was Obama’s ability to build a coalition of white liberals and African-Americans which enabled him to secure the nomination. Sanders, though, appears to have little appeal to African-Americans and it is hard to see why, having stuck with her eight years ago, Hispanics will desert Clinton now.
Barring some further scandal or an unexpectedly weak performance by the former first lady, the danger Sanders poses is less that he will deny Clinton the nomination, but that a protracted primary battle pushes her to the left and off the centre-ground from which she hopes to beat the Republicans in November.
In the general election, both parties can marshal evidence that their nominee will eventually prevail. Republicans point to their majorities in Congress and the fact that they control most governorships and state legislatures to suggest America has an underlying centre-right majority.
That case is underlined by the polls which match Clinton against her likely Republican opponents. They show her narrowly ahead of relative moderates like Jeb Bush and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, as well as the ultra-conservative evangelical neurosurgeon Ben Carson; tied with Tea party favourite Texas Senator Ted Cruz; and just behind the last best hope of the GOP establishment, Florida senator Marco Rubio. Only against Donald Trump does she have a more comfortable margin at this stage. These figures underscore the fact that the combination of the row over her use of a private email when secretary of state, and her return to frontline politics last spring, have driven down Clinton’s once sky-high approval ratings and pushed up the number of Americans who question her honesty and trustworthiness.
It is, however, history which presents Clinton with her biggest challenge. Only once since 1952 has a party managed to win the electoral college three times in a row. The exception was 1988 when, against a weak Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, George HW Bush pulled off what many interpreted as ‘a third term for Reagan’. The comparison with today is instructive and problematic for the Democrats: in February 1988, Ronald Reagan’s approval rating stood at 52 per cent, with 36 per cent disapproving of his performance in the White House. By election day, that figure had crept up to 56 per cent. By contrast, Obama’s job approval rating is at 44 per cent, with 52 per cent disapproving. Nearly two-thirds of voters believe America is ‘on the wrong track’; in 1988, most polls found a majority believing it was ‘headed in the right direction’.
The Democrats have grounds for optimism, though. The party has won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and the Clinton campaign will look to mobilise the so-called ‘coalition of the ascendant’ which underpinned Obama’s two victories. Non-white voters, for instance, who made up 28 per cent of the electorate in 2012 will grow to 31 per cent this year – although many commentators rightly warn that Clinton may struggle to match the African-American turnout which Obama achieved.
Even holding the White House for more than eight years is not as daunting as history appears to suggest. Since 1950, there have been seven occasions on which a party has had the chance to hold the presidency for three terms. On two of those – 1952 and 2008 – the outgoing president’s deep unpopularity consigned his party to a decisive defeat. But, once 1988 is excluded, each of the other four elections were decided by less than two percentage points: John F Kennedy’s victory in 1960, Richard Nixon’s in 1968 and Jimmy Carter’s in 1976 were the narrowest of the postwar period, while, infamously, Al Gore succeeded in winning the popular vote in 2000 if not the presidency.
Bush’s win in 1988 was also not simply a reflection of public satisfaction with Reagan’s presidency. In the summer of 1988 the Democrats had high hopes of victory but Dukakis wilted in the face of relentless Republican attacks. Whatever the current polls suggest, of all Clinton’s likely opponents only Rubio appears capable of reaching out to swing voters and making inroads into the Democrat coalition. As Obama did when challenging Clinton for the nomination, the youthful Florida senator would – if the Republicans pick him as their standard-bearer – attempt to portray Clinton as a partisan warrior stuck in the 1990s. But having opted for generational change over experience eight years ago, many Americans may balk at doing so again – especially given the perilous situation in the Middle East.
Appropriately, a huge potential wild card in November could be Trump. If he fails to win the Republican nomination, he has repeatedly threatened to run as a third-party candidate. Although he may face legal obstacles – some states have ‘sore loser laws’ which prevent a candidate who has attempted to run for one party’s nomination then attempting to run for another party – a Trump candidacy would play havoc for the Republicans. The party has suffered at the hands of rightwing populists before: in 1968, George Wallace nearly succeeded in denying Richard Nixon victory, while Ross Perot arguably did more damage to Bush than Bill Clinton in 1992.
There are, of course, other, rather less conventional, pointers as to who may be entering the White House next January. The mock presidential election held by students at Western Illinois University has successfully predicted the winner for the past 40 years. Two months ago, they overwhelmingly elected Bernie Sanders over Jeb Bush. But precedents, as Bill Clinton showed in New Hampshire in 1992, are there to be broken.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress
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