The Status Quo Candidate

For someone who's likely to win the Democratic nomination and get elected President this year, Hillary Clinton's got problems. But they may turn out to be short-term problems.

For one thing, she has become the candidate of the status quo. A lot of voters, including a lot of Democratic voters, are not satisfied with the status quo. In this month's McClatchy-Marist poll, two thirds of Americans -- and half of Democrats -- say things in the country are going in the wrong direction.

Clinton may have competed with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination eight years ago, but having served in his Administration for four years, she has become thoroughly identified with President Obama's record.

In Wisconsin last week, only about half of Democratic primary voters said the next President's policies should continue President Obama's policies. They voted for Clinton. Democrats who wanted a new direction went overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders. His supporters look at Hillary Clinton and see "triangulation'' -- her husband's record of accommodation and compromise: free trade, welfare reform, budget balancing, deregulation of Wall Street, the Defense of Marriage Act, the crime bill.

Former President Bill Clinton said this week, "Sometimes I get the feeling that the gentleman who's running against Hillary is running harder against President Obama and me than he is against the legacy of the Bush Administration and trickle-down economics.'' That's true. But the Bush Administration's record is not an issue in the Democratic primaries. The Clinton record and the Obama record are.

Week after week, we've been seeing the same pattern: Bernie Sanders does much better among self-described Independents than among more partisan Democrats. In Ohio for example, Sanders took two thirds of the vote among Independents voting in the Democratic primary but only about one third of the vote among those who identified as Democrats.

Clinton's weakness with Independents is the main reason why polls show Sanders as the stronger Democratic candidate for November. In the McClatchy-Marist poll, Sanders leads Donald Trump by 20 points. Hillary Clinton leads Trump by nine. The main reason for the disparity: among Independents, Sanders runs 24 points ahead of Trump while Clinton leads Trump by just three.

And with Ted Cruz at the top of the Republican ticket? Same thing: Sanders leads Cruz by 12 points while a Clinton vs. Cruz race is a tie. Again, the key is Independents. They go for Sanders over Cruz but Cruz over Clinton.

Clinton supporters tend to be loyal Democrats. She said this week, "I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz any time.'' Sanders has said he will support Clinton if she wins the nomination, but his supporters are less reliable. Right now, a quarter of Sanders voters say they will not back Clinton in November if she's the nominee. Fourteen percent of Clinton voters say they would refuse to back Sanders. Would so many Sanders supporters actually vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? No, but some of them may not vote or vote for an independent candidate rather than Clinton.

On the other hand, Sanders' weakness with partisan Democrats may make it tough for him to win the nomination. His main argument to try to persuade superdelegates to switch sides and support him is momentum. He has won seven out of the last eight Democratic contests. But his momentum may draw to a halt very soon. Four big states have yet to vote, and three of them -- New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- allow only registered Democrats to participate. (The California Democratic primary on June 7 is open to Independents.) Those states also have large minority constituencies, and minorities have been going strongly for Clinton.

Moreover, because Democratic Party rules require states to divide their convention delegates in proportion to the vote, Sanders would have to win overwhelming victories in the remaining states to catch up with Clinton's delegate lead.

The Democratic Party's proportional rules also have the effect of keeping ailing candidates alive. The primaries are supposed to be a killing field. The idea is to kill off candidates and get their bodies off the field as fast as possible. As long as Sanders can keep winning delegates, he will remain a contender.

His people will be a major force at the Democratic convention in July. They will demand a change in the party rules to get rid of unelected superdelegates. Superdelegates right now are supporting Clinton over Sanders by 15 to 1.

Ironically, party rules are creating the opposite problem for Republicans this year. Republican rules allow states with later primaries to award delegates winner-take-all or winner-take-most. The idea was to shut the contest down quickly and allow the party to close ranks behind the frontrunner. Republicans never expected the frontrunner to be Donald Trump.

The legitimacy of the process has become an issue in both parties this year. Sanders objects to unelected superdelegates. Trump objects to the fact that his chief rival, Ted Cruz, has been outmaneuvering him in the selection of actual delegates by party insiders. Trump calls it :a crooked deal'' and "a rigged system'' run by the Republican establishment. He keeps threatening to bolt the party if he wins more primary votes than anyone else but is denied the nomination.

Republicans seem to have two options for November. They can nominate Trump and lose. Or they can nominate someone else, in which case Trump will make sure they lose.

Right now, Clinton's ties to President Obama are a problem for her. But they may turn into a strength. The latest polls show Obama's job approval inching up to 50 percent as voters begin to acknowledge the improving economy. When an incumbent President's job approval rises over 50, it's good news for his party even if the President can't run for re-election. It means the status quo looks better, and the candidate of the President's party has a good chance to win.