Hillary Clinton is not the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee. Clinton was not the inevitable nominee in 2008, and she is not inevitable in 2016 either. Of course, this really isn't new or surprising, because nothing in politics is ever inevitable, really. Elections are always about as "evitable" as one can imagine.
The reason I'm starting this article out with such a basic truth is that two new polls appeared this weekend that said pretty much what a bunch of other polls have been saying for a while now. The pundit world, as a result, finally woke up to the reality that Bernie Sanders is not some sort of gadfly candidate. Sanders, the polls show, has a solid chance at winning New Hampshire and at least a decent chance of winning Iowa. If Clinton were to lose both states then the Democratic race's dynamics would shift in a major way.
This has been the dream scenario for Sanders supporters all along, and it's not looking like such an outside chance anymore. Clinton has long considered New Hampshire to be mostly irrelevant this time around, since Bernie winning there wouldn't be all that big a deal (since he hails from next-door Vermont). But if Clinton lost Iowa it would show stronger Sanders support than anyone predicted when he first entered the race.
Iowa's caucuses are a test of voters' endurance. Only the truly committed show up. Clinton has some very enthusiastic supporters (many excited that we could elect the first woman president), but then so does Bernie. His rallies are already legendary for their level of crowd excitement, and he's gotten more small donations than Hillary has managed (although Hillary, to be fair, has raised more money overall). If the caucuses turn out to be a measure of the depth or breadth of the excitement of their supporters, Sanders could indeed emerge the victor.
Hillary Clinton is obviously getting a little nervous about Bernie's chances, as she's pivoting from exclusively attacking Donald Trump (and the rest of the GOP field), to now trying to position herself to the left of Sanders on gun control. She wouldn't be bothering to attempt this strategy if she were wholly unconcerned about Bernie's chances, to state the obvious. Team Clinton insists that they're not really worried, since after New Hampshire and Iowa Clinton has a much stronger advantage heading into South Carolina and Nevada. But momentum can shift abruptly, and Sanders winning the first two contests might significantly erode Clinton's advantage in the next two states to vote. The media will be filled with stories of Sanders gaining support and Clinton losing it, most likely.
Even if Clinton does retain her edge by winning both Nevada and South Carolina, the two candidates will head into Super Tuesday tied at two states apiece. That's pretty even footing, although if this does come to pass Clinton will be getting the "comeback" stories written about her just before the first of March, when the next fourteen states will vote.
Examining Clinton's past record shows (to what extent is debatable, I fully concede in advance) weakness in the roster of these states -- something few have noticed, at this point. In 2008, Clinton won two of the traditional first four states (New Hampshire and Nevada) while Obama picked up two (Iowa and South Carolina). But back then Michigan and Florida jumped the line and voted early (this was a bone of contention in the Democratic world) and Hillary fought for and won both states (Obama did not fight for them, in protest over their jumping the line). Then a whopping 22 states participated in 2008's Super Tuesday, and Clinton only won seven of them (although she did win New York and California, which gave her a lot of delegates due to their population size).
This time around, out of the fourteen states voting, Clinton has only previously won five of them (Arkansas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas). The nine other states voting in Super Tuesday (or "SEC Tuesday," as some are calling it) all went to Barack Obama (Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, North Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming).
Past performance may not be the best indicator of what's going to happen this time around, of course. Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama, and 2016 is not 2008. Hillary Clinton learned a hard lesson from how she lost last time around, and it's fair to assume she won't be making the same mistakes this time (such as virtually ignoring all the caucus states). Still, her record shows that back in 2008 -- when she was also considered the inevitable nominee -- she lost a lot of the states she's going to need on this year's Super Tuesday. She lost some of these states by wide margins, too.
In 2008, the biggest momentum shift was among African-American voters. Up until Obama started winning states, African-American support leaned heavily towards Clinton. Bill Clinton had always enjoyed strong support among this demographic, and electing a black man president was seen by many African-American voters as an unachievable dream. Right up until he started winning other states. Could Hillary's strong advantage with the African-American and Latino community also be subject to such erosion this time around? It's impossible to tell at this point, but it does remain a distinct possibility.
The split among the Democratic Party in 2008 left some deep wounds in the rank-and-file Democratic electorate. There was a very vocal community of Hillary Clinton supporters who felt so badly treated by the Obama campaign that they pledged never to support Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee. They had the charming label "PUMA," which stood for: "Party unity, my ass!" But although they were prominent online, a PUMA walkout at the convention never actually materialized. Most Democratic voters (obviously) followed the plea from Hillary Clinton to support Barack Obama in the general election.
There is a danger of such a rift happening this year as well, no matter who wins the party's nomination. If Bernie Sanders wins, there are going to be a lot of very frustrated and angry women out there, to put it mildly. Twice the party chooses a man instead of their favorite? That's going to cause some seething resentment. But party division may be more of a danger if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination, because Bernie Sanders supporters consider Clinton no more than "Republican-lite" or a DINO (Democrat In Name Only). Her ties to Wall Street are going to be a bridge too far for a lot of fervent Sanders supporters. Some of them are already proclaiming publicly that they'll never vote for Clinton, if Sanders doesn't win. They sound pretty committed, although it remains to be seen how many of Bernie's legions of fans feel this strongly about Clinton.
Many of the "Bernie or nobody" crowd may be faced with a terrifying choice come November: vote for Hillary Clinton or (by staying home) help elect either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. The split in the Democratic Party may heal (as intra-party splits often do) by hatred and/or fear of the other team's candidate. Whoever wins, whether Sanders or Clinton, will woo Democrats back to the fold by pointing out that the next president could get to name as many as four Supreme Court justices, which could shift the balance of power on the court for a generation to come. Those are pretty high stakes, and this will be enough for many Democratic voters to vote for the candidate with the "D" next to their name, however unenthusiastically.
There is no guarantee, of course, that the name on that ballot will be Hillary Clinton. She's already vulnerable in at least two of the first four states to vote, and if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire then the rest of the country (including the media) will start paying a lot more attention to Bernie Sanders's campaign. Democratic voters in South Carolina and Nevada might start "feeling the Bern," so to speak. Then Clinton has to win on Super Tuesday in a whole lot of states that didn't vote for her the last time around. Right now, even with the polling news from Iowa and New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton still has to be seen as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders still has a long way to go before he becomes competitive with Clinton nationwide. But such a swelling of support has happened before, so it could happen this time too. Even though Clinton holds the advantage now, she is a long way from being inevitable.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant