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Uncharted Territory: Why Hillary Isn't Your Typical Frontrunner

As the 2016 presidential contest continues to take shape, Hillary Clinton appears to be in an extraordinary position.

As the 2016 presidential contest continues to take shape, Hillary Clinton appears to be in an extraordinary position – the former secretary of state is essentially running more as a White House incumbent (a la Barack Obama in 2012 or George W. Bush in 2004) than your traditional candidate for an open-seat race.

And her quasi-incumbent status gives her some clear advantages and disadvantages.

While Clinton still isn’t officially a presidential candidate, consider these past actions:

  • She’s lured President Obama’s campaign pollster, Joel Benenson, to do her polling;
  • She’s added Obama’s media consultant, Jim Margolis;
  • And most recently, she’s bringing in the president’s current communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, to handle press relations.

This isn’t a presidential candidate who’s starting from scratch; rather, it’s someone who is surrounding herself with the current term-limited president’s team.

Perhaps more significantly – and more like a presidential incumbent – she is facing little to no primary opposition.

That’s in contrast to the last two clear frontrunners who tried to succeed their party’s term-limited president: George H.W. Bush (who in 1988 received a challenge from Bob Dole) and Al Gore (who got one from Bill Bradley).

Yes, Clinton could very well face challenges from Democrats like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., or former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va. But as of now, it seems very unlikely that Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., will run if Clinton is in the race. Indeed, Hillary Clinton also enlisting Warren’s top strategist Mandy Grunwald is the latest sign that Warren isn’t running.

And then there’s the polling: A recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll found Clinton ahead in Iowa by 40 points from her nearest competition (Warren). And a WMUR Granite State poll had Clinton up by 44 points in New Hampshire.

Advantages and disadvantages to Clinton’s position

Of course, as we’ve seen in the past, an incumbent president running for re-election has advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages: You get to focus solely on the general election and don’t have to spend precious resources in fighting back against your own party. You get to avoid the intra-party fights and attacks, which tend to resurface in the general (the 2012 attacks on Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital first came from primary opponent Newt Gingrich). And you get the party’s organization and leaders behind you from the get-go.

The disadvantages: You don’t get to make the deep personal connections with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire (both of which are general-election battlegrounds) that you do when there’s a truly contested race. You’re a bit rustier at debates (see Obama’s experience in 2012). And your fortunes are more tied to the overall fundamentals and external events (Is the economy growing? What is the president’s approval rating? Is there new instability at home or abroad?).

Unchartered territory

But what’s clear is that Clinton is about to set course in uncharted territory for presidential aspirants – with the party’s baton passed to her before the race truly even begins.

“History suggests that in open presidential nomination contests, front-runners rarely go from the starting line to the finish without losing a few primaries or caucuses along the way,” political analyst Charlie Cook writes. “Usually the leader stumbles, or a protest vote develops somewhere in the process, or another candidate catches a bit of luck or sparks a bit of interest.”

In 2016, it’s likely – if not a slam dunk – that Hillary Clinton will have the Democratic field and party pretty mostly to herself during the primary season. Unless something surprising happens, there isn’t going to be much of a Democratic primary race.

How Clinton fares after that is anyone’s guess.