If Hillary Clinton doesn’t become the Democratic presidential nominee next year, who could replace her?
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Hillary Clinton doesn’t run in the Democratic presidential primaries next year.
There are plenty of reasons to assume that won’t happen: The FBI’s investigation into her private email may not yield anything particularly damaging to her candidacy; even if it does, the Clintons already have a long history of bouncing back from scandals that would have destroyed other politicians; and Hillary Clinton’s indefatigability during her 2008 primary race against Barack Obama suggests that even the most adverse odds won’t necessarily compel her to quit.
At the same time, if Clinton is forced to drop out of this campaign – whether because of a scandal related to her email account or for any other reason – it will completely transform the race for the Democratic nomination in 2016, if for no other reason than she has dominated in intraparty polls since President Obama’s reelection. As such, it is worthwhile to look at the three possible outcomes that would follow her withdrawal either before the first primary or shortly thereafter:
- The party’s far left pulls off an upset.
This is probably the least likely outcome, as indicated by the fact that the Democrats haven’t nominated a candidate from their leftist fringe in nearly half a century. That said, when the 1972 election saw the Democrats nominate Sen. George McGovern (SD) – who was strongly identified with the New Left coalition formed from the anti-Vietnam protest, civil rights, and countercultural movements – it was largely because the party’s clear frontrunner, Sen. Edmund Muskie (ME), committed several last-minute gaffes that caused him to fall below expectations. Even though he beat all the other candidates in Iowa (save for “Unpledged”), Arizona, and New Hampshire, McGovern was close enough behind him that the public perception cast McGovern as the candidate with momentum and Muskie as the one who was flagging. By the time the party establishment united behind a new alternative (former Vice President Hubert Humphrey) to prevent McGovern’s nomination, he had developed a strong enough political organization and amassed enough delegates to stave them off.
For something like this to happen in 2016, Clinton would need to either (a) drop out before the Democratic establishment has enough time to unite around a new alternative to the far left’s preferred candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) or (b) stay in the race, maintain enough support in the polls to discourage other strong establishment candidates from entering, and then lose (or “lose”) to Sanders in enough early states to give him momentum. There is also the possibility that the party establishment might unite behind an establishment candidate who simply doesn’t have enough support to beat back Sanders, such as Vice President Joe Biden. This brings us to the second possibility…
- The nomination will be fiercely contested between two or more establishment alternatives.
The closest analogy to this scenario can be found in the 1988 presidential election, when the overwhelming frontrunner Sen. Gary Hart (CO) was forced to withdraw after an adultery scandal derailed his campaign (he made a last-minute attempt to rejoin the race several months later but it barely made a blip). As a result, the Democratic primaries wound up being fiercely contested by several candidates whose prospects hadn’t previously been taken seriously, including Gov. Michael Dukakis (MA), Sen. Al Gore (TN), Rep. Dick Gephardt (MO), and Sen. Paul Simon (IL). Although this division between establishment options initially allowed the far left’s champion (Reverend Jesse Jackson) to win several major primaries, the moderates prevailed once Simon, Gephardt, and Gore were gradually eliminated by Dukakis, who went on to handily beat Jackson in most of the remaining states.
There are two ways this could happen in 2016. If Clinton leaves the race before the early primaries are held, considerable attention would shift to the field of mainstream candidates who hadn’t received attention while she was still in the race, including Vice President Biden, Gov. Martin O’Malley (MD), former Sen. Jim Webb (VA), and former Gov. Lincoln Chaffee (RI). There is also the chance that Clinton could stay in and lose to more than one of these moderates in the early primaries, eventually prompting her to withdraw; that said, this would only result in a contest with a diverse field of mainstream candidates if Clinton did so poorly that several of them emerged as viable alternatives in the process. If current polls are to be believed, however, Sanders has enough support that he could easily emerge as the second half of a sans Clinton two-way race (with an establishment choice being the other one) instead of it containing two establishment politicians. That observation leads us to the third possibility…
- A new undisputed frontrunner will replace Clinton.
There is a reason why Biden, Al Gore, and John Kerry have been encouraged to join the race, despite the latter two both denying any interest in running. Because no incumbent vice president has been denied his party’s nomination since Alben Barkley in 1952, Biden would automatically receive enormous media attention and organizational support. Similarly, as former presidential nominees who ran close campaigns (and an arguably victorious one in Gore’s case) and went on to have distinguished post-election careers, Gore and Kerry would naturally become political heavyweights as soon as they entered. A similar case could also be made for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), who was widely discussed as a potential presidential candidate until she formally announced she wasn’t running – but whose clout within the party is sufficiently high that when Biden met with her on Saturday, it was immediately rumored that he did so to solicit her possible support.
Of course, the big flaw in this hypothesis is that all but one of the aforementioned Democrats have repeatedly insisted that they won’t run in 2016; Biden, on the other hand, has done surprisingly poorly in polls up to this point, suggesting that – even though his incumbency would automatically place high expectations on him as a putative frontrunner – he would still be quite vulnerable as the lesser-known mainstream candidates received more attention (see Point #2). That said, there is always the possibility that Gore, Kerry, and/or Warren would reevaluate their current stance on not running if Clinton is decisively out of the race, particularly if they were persuaded that the party needed them to avert a Republican victory in the general election. Even if none of them ran, though, it’s also possible that another last-minute fresh face might suddenly take the party by storm (Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York comes to mind) or that one of the existing candidates would make such a strong impression that he would attain an advantage no other candidate would be able to eclipse.
While it isn’t pleasant to discuss the possible disgrace of a political figure who redefined the office of First Lady, had distinguished careers in the Senate and as Secretary of State, and who has become an icon for women’s rights in her own time, there is a silver lining to the discussion over who might replace her if that happens. By opening up the race to a Democratic nomination that polls suggested would be hers for the asking if she chose to run – and then indicated was all but guaranteed to go to her after she announced her candidacy – it would demonstrate that no single individual, however popular or influential, can foreclose on an election simply because of overwhelming odds in his or her favor. Similarly, if her downfall occurs due to a scandal (email-related or otherwise), it would remind the American public that even the most powerful politicians in the country can be held accountable when they break the law or cross important ethical lines.
Again, none of this means that Clinton should be written off as doomed at this time. All it tells us is that it’s time to think about what might happen if, like Muskie and Hart before her, Clinton is suddenly removed from the race… and the Democratic Party is left to deal with the consequences.