What’s happening in the Democratic presidential primary? Hillary Clinton, widely viewed for the past year as the party’s presumptive nominee, is suddenly not the only name Democrats are muttering these days. Joe Biden is sounding out allies about a potential presidential bid that just a few months ago seemed unlikely at best.
Some Democratic officials are shooting down reports that Al Gore, who last ran for elective office 15 years ago, might be generating some renewed interest inside the party.
But these stories are really more about Clinton’s campaign and the difficulties she has faced in the unfolding story about her emails as secretary of state. Here’s what we know:
Are Joe Biden and Al Gore really running for president?
So far, no, not at all. Neither has formed an exploratory committee, flown to Iowa or New Hampshire to hint at a candidacy or taken any formal steps to build a campaign.
So why are people speculating they might run?
Biden has not ruled out a 2016 run and has long said he would decide later this year. And some of his longtime supporters, like former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, are urging him to enter the campaign. He is taking calls from these supporters and actively considering a campaign.
There is a Draft Biden group that is now being aided by Josh Alcorn, who was an aide to Biden’s son Beau, who passed away in May. Beau Biden was urging his father to run for president before he died.
It’s not clear Gore has even been talking to supporters, although a story from BuzzFeed suggested some of the former vice president’s allies want him to run. Gore has also not ruled out a 2016 campaign, although no one was really suggesting he would run until now.
But these stories are really about the potential weakness of Clinton as a candidate. The Democratic establishment wants to have a presidential candidate who fits the party’s general ideology and can win the general election. That was expected to be the former first lady.
Some Republicans have argued Democrats didn’t have a bench of other candidates, so they desperately needed Clinton to run. But that is not completely accurate. Democratic strategists say Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Biden all would like to be president and would have been open to running if they had a viable chance of winning the nomination. But once it was clear Clinton would run, they stood down, aware they were not likely to defeat her. Gillibrand in particular considers Clinton a mentor.
Clinton seemed like a safe, popular choice for Democrats. So the party has gotten behind her as President Obama’s successor.
The best predictor of whether a candidate will win a party’s nomination is not polls, but endorsements by his or her party’s fellow officials. And by that measure, Clinton is leading the Democratic contest by a huge margin. The data journalism website FiveThirtyEight has come up with a formula to track endorsements from governors and members of Congress. By the site’s measure, Clinton has 307 points, compared to 1 for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and 0 for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. (For comparison, in the Republican field, Jeb Bush leads with 31 points.)
But now, Democrats have two problems. Some of the party’s best potential candidates, like Gillibrand, who is young (48) and charismatic, and Biden, who has been elected twice nationally, aren’t running, having ceded to Clinton’s strength at the start of 2015.
And now Clinton is not looking like such a safe choice.
While much remains unknown, several facts are clear: Clinton as secretary of state used a private server for her e-mail, unlike many other top Obama administration officials; an inspector general in the executive branch and congressional committees are investigating if messages that contained classified information or information that should have been classified were on that server; and a federal judge has ordered Clinton and two of her top aides at the department, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills, to sign a certification form declaring they have turned over to the State Department all e-mails that involved their work at the department.
Polls suggest Clinton’s ratings on trustworthiness have declined amid the e-mail controversy. So Democrat Party officials now have to determine if she remains a viable candidate to win the general election.
For now, the party remains firmly behind her, with ex-Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin endorsing Clinton on Friday.
But if somehow Clinton could not run for president, Gore, Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry are the kind of people who could be drafted to run in her place. Why? Because they are well-known, mainstream figures who many Democrats have already voted for. Kerry and Gore were the party’s nominees and nearly elected president, and Biden has now won twice nationally as part of the Obama ticket. They are not young but in good health. (Biden is 72, Clinton 67, Gore 67, Kerry 71).
They could likely defeat Sanders in a primary, even if they entered the campaign at the last minute.
But what about Bernie? Why isn’t he the alternative to Clinton?
Sanders is surging in polls, leading Clinton in one New Hampshire survey.
But here are two important facts to consider. First, Clinton has not launched a single public attack of Sanders. In 2007, as Barack Obama rose in polls, Clinton started blasting him as inexperienced. Clinton is not attacking Sanders because she does not yet consider him a real threat to win the nomination.
Secondly, not a single Democratic member of Congress has backed Sanders.
The Democratic Party broadly views Sanders as unelectable, because of the combination of his very progressive political positions, that his political experience is largely in a small, liberal, non-diverse state and his rumpled style.
It’s not clear that the party is correct to make this assessment, but it already has. Sanders' rise in the polls has come in part because he has consolidated the votes of liberals who had wanted Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run as the progressive alternative to Clinton.
But donors and party officials were ready to get behind Warren if she opted to run. Sanders is considered to be running a kind of protest campaign, trying to push Clinton to the left as far as possible. If he won some of the early states and appeared to be headed toward the Democratic nomination, party figures would be determined to stop him, endorsing Clinton, Biden or whatever establishment figure they figured could win.
“The question that some of us have ‘is can someone who has said, ‘I’m not a Democrat,’ has chosen the title of socialist, is that person really electable?” Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a CNN interview on Tuesday, referring to Sanders.
McCaskill is one of the 30 Senate Democrats who is already behind Clinton.
Sanders, in some ways, is in the same position of Howard Dean in 2004, Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012. Even if you have popular support, it is hard to win the presidential nomination if the party establishment strongly opposes you. And Sanders, like those candidates, has a narrow base of support. White liberals have embraced him, but he remains far behind Clinton among moderate, conservative and non-white Democrats.
Sanders supporters argue Obama was in a similar place in 2008. He was not. Obama had a number of establishment figures in the party behind him in the early stages of the race. And once Obama won in Iowa, he became just as establishment as Clinton: scions of the Democratic Party like Ted Kennedy and Kerry endorsed him.
O’Malley has struggled so much in his 2016 run that Democrats are also very unlikely to get behind him as the alternative to Clinton.
So are Gore or Biden or Kerry going to run against Hillary?
Probably not. All three of these men have already run for president. The obvious reason they would not run is that they are men of considerable ego, and losing again would be a major blow to them. The obvious reason they would run is that all three badly wanted to be president (Gore and Biden ran twice, while Kerry ran in 2004 and strongly considered a 2008 run) and their chances of being the Leader of the Free World are higher than 0%.
Biden is the most likely, since Kerry would have to resign as a secretary of state and Gore has long been out of politics. Biden could run on the off-chance Democrats desperately need an alternative to Clinton.
If he lost, Biden would still have the legacy of having helped the first black president get elected, seeing through a huge expansion of health insurance and being the vice-president who helped push his administration and the nation to embrace same-sex marriage.
How long do these people have to decide?
Officially, the filing deadline to run for president in New Hampshire is on Nov. 27. And many other states; deadlines are in December or January. So in theory, these candidates have time. And if Clinton were not on the ballot, it’s not totally impossible Biden, Kerry or Gore, universally known by Democrats, could run a write-in campaign, as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski did in 2010 after losing the Republican primary.
Some argue these candidates need to start running now, building the kind of massive combination of on-the-ground staff and fundraising they would need to beat Clinton.
That may not be true. Clinton is a deeply popular figure among Democrats who is running to be the first female president. Biden, Gore and Kerry are very unlikely to defeat her in a traditional campaign. Biden already ran against Clinton in 2008 and finished far behind her.
The path to victory for one of these men is that the controversies around Clinton in effect defeat her, and the establishment alternative inherits her support and then defeats Sanders.
What about Elizabeth Warren?
In Washington circles, it’s broadly agreed Gillibrand was almost certain to run in a field without Clinton, able to cast herself as the first potential female president and that Gillibrand will eventually run. It’s not Warren actually wants to run for president, even if she might want to be president.
How likely is this to all to happen?
Very unlikely. Hillary Clinton, as some conservatives have argued, is becoming “too big to fail.” The Democratic Party is very firmly behind her. Obama has praised her publicly, some of his staff left the White House to work for Clinton the entire party apparatus has backed her.
Another politician under this kind of scrutiny about their ethics might be losing support from their party. But Clinton is actually gaining support in the party amid the controversies, as Harkin’s endorsement showed. Democrats are downplaying the controversies around Clinton, defending her as they have Obama or they did Bill Clinton in the 1990’s.
The Democratic Party is totally invested in Clinton. It’s unlikely they are now going to say they made a huge mistake and pick another candidate.