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Hillary Clinton’s first two months as a presidential candidate haven’t been exactly a smooth ride.
Just consider these story lines since she officially announced her candidacy:
- The heavily scrutinized Clinton Foundation stories;
- The controversy over her State Department emails;
- Three announced Democratic rivals (Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee) now challenging her in the race;
- Polls showing a decline in perceptions about her honesty;
- And even a straw poll result with her barely beating Sanders in Wisconsin.
But here is the good news for Clinton as she holds her first big campaign-style rally Saturday on New York’s Roosevelt Island: She still has maybe the clearest path of any non-incumbent in modern times to winning a party’s presidential nomination.
“At this stage, Hillary Clinton is one of the most dominant – if not the most dominant – non-incumbent candidates in presidential primaries since 1980,” said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University.
That’s clear in the polls showing her leading the nearest Democratic competition by 40 to 50 points. (By comparison, her lead over Barack Obama at this same point in the 2008 presidential race was 14 points, according to the June 2007 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.)
It’s also seen in the endorsements, given that she’s already picked up the backing of about two-thirds of sitting Democratic senators. (By early 2008, she had endorsements from just a fifth of sitting Dem senators.)
And it’s evident in the fact that other big-name Democrats – including Vice President Joe Biden – have passed or have appeared to pass on making a White House bid. (There is no Barack Obama or even a John Edwards in the current Democratic field.)
None of this is to say that Hillary is shoo-in to win the general election in Nov. 2016 – far from it in today’s polarized red-vs.-blue nation. Indeed, Republicans have been heartened to see her personal ratings drop over the last few months.
Nor does it mean that the unexpected can’t happen in American politics – it sometimes does.
But it does underscore the reality that Hillary Clinton is dominating the field in arguably an unprecedented way when it comes the first leg of her 2016 White House run.
“The first step in becoming president is winning your party’s nomination,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. “And by any standard, Hillary Clinton is in a uniquely strong position to reach that goal.”
Comparing Hillary with past White House contenders
Indeed, we have to go back 16 years ago to find non-incumbent candidates with a dominant edge in winning their party’s presidential nomination – sitting Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
“I think Clinton is roughly comparable to Gore in 2000,” says political scientist and blogger Jonathan Bernstein. “If pressed, I might say she's a bit stronger.”
Yet even Gore still had to go toe-to-toe with former New Jersey Senator (and former NBA basketball star) Bill Bradley. And George W. Bush had to face off against Sen. John McCain, who beat Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
And in 1988, then-sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush had to run against then-Sen. Bob Dole, who defeated Bush in the Iowa caucuses.
Is there any downside to winning the nomination easily?
Looking back at the Obama-vs.-Clinton nomination battle in 2008, some political analysts believe that a highly competitive primary field makes the ultimate winner stronger for the general election.
But Sides, the political scientist, counters that an easy nomination fight gives the nominee more time to concentrate on the general election.
“If you think about [Mitt] Romney and Obama in 2012, Obama had months, if not years, to build his campaign, while Romney could really only pivot to the general election in April.”
“People talk about how it’s important for a candidate to be ‘tested’ in the primary or how it’s ‘good for the party’ to have a debate among primary candidates. I don’t really see any evidence for that,” Sides adds.
Bernstein offers the same opinion: “I don't think there's any downside at all in winning the nomination easily.”