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Democrats Want Clinton To Face A Primary Challenger (But They Want Clinton To Win)

When I get ice cream, I almost always get chocolate. But when I go to the ice cream shop, I like to have a choice between chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, rocky road, etc. I’m pretty sure the same thing is going on when Democrats say they want Hillary Clinton to face a primary challenger.

People know what they want, but they still want a choice.

Polls from Monmouth University, Selzer & Co. and Suffolk University have come out over the past few weeks showing that Democrats would prefer it if Clinton had to fight for the nomination. In Bloomberg’s write-up of the Selzer poll, John McCormick said this “presents a potential opening for other Democrats considering bids.” This vulnerability supposedly exists despite Clinton being in the strongest polling and endorsement position of any non-incumbent president in modern primary history.

I’m not buying it. We’ve seen this act before. In the 2000 contest, Al Gore, the only candidate with a comparable lead to what Clinton has now, was wiping the floor with Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary. Yet, in a July 1999 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 65 percent of Democrats said Bradley’s campaign was “a good thing for the Democratic Party because it will create a healthy debate within the party and because it gives Democrats a choice.”

You know what happened to Bradley? He won zero primaries and held Gore under 50 percent just once (in New Hampshire). Gore, meanwhile, won the highest percentage of the national primary vote for a non-incumbent in modern history.

Gore isn’t the only previous example, either. According to the Pew Research Center, a surprisingly high 66 percent of Democrats wanted incumbent President Bill Clinton to be challenged after the 1994 midterm elections. If this question is meant to get at vulnerability, somebody forgot to tell Clinton’s fellow Democrats. Not a single semi-serious challenger emerged.

Heck, Democrats were split evenly on whether they wanted President Obama to face a serious challenge for the nomination in 2012. There was, as Ed Kilgore pointed out at the time, almost no chance that was going to happen. Obama, of course, cruised to the nomination.

As I wrote last week, it’s possible that Clinton won’t win the nomination. Stranger things have happened. But these polls about whether Clinton should face a primary challenge vastly oversell that possibility. We’re Americans; we like choices.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.