Hillary Clinton’s recent hawkish comments about foreign policy, in which she expressed some disagreements with President Obama, have inspired reporting and speculation that liberal Democrats will grow disillusioned with her ahead of a possible presidential bid in 2016. There is a ”pattern that has emerged in almost every recent interview Clinton has given: liberals walk away unnerved,” Ezra Klein wrote at Vox.
The Vox headline proclaimed that Clinton is “not inevitable” — that is, not the inevitable Democratic nominee. That’s right, narrowly speaking. Few things are inevitable, and Clinton’s nomination is no exception. Although she’s performing most or all of the activities that we’d associate with a future presidential candidate, she’s not yet officially declared for the race and could still decide against doing so. She could have health problems, or a heretofore unknown scandal could emerge, or she could decide that the 2016 climate has become grim enough for Democrats that the nomination isn’t worth seeking.
But the odds that a challenger will emerge from the left flank of the Democratic Party and overtake Clinton remain low.
As my colleague Harry Enten pointed out in May, Clinton has generally done as well or better in polls of liberal Democrats as among other types of Democrats. Between September and March, an average of 70 percent of liberal Democrats named her as their top choice for the 2016 nomination as compared to 65 percent of Democrats overall. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted more recently showed Clinton with 72 percent of the primary vote among liberal Democrats as compared to 66 percent of all Democrats. And a CNN poll conducted last month gave her 66 percent of the liberal Democratic vote against 67 percent of all Democrats.
The CNN poll is slightly more recent than the others, but if there’s been a meaningful change in how rank-and-file liberal Democrats perceive Clinton, you’d have to squint to see it. Perhaps more important, it’s extremely rare to see a non-incumbent candidate poll so strongly so early. In the earliest stages of the 2008 Democratic nomination race, Clinton was polling between 25 percent and 40 percent of the vote — not between 60 percent and 70 percent, as she is now. Clinton could lose quite a bit of Democratic support and still be in a strong position.
But suppose you see those polls as a lagging indicator. Another early measure of a candidate’s strength that can have predictive power is the amount of support she receives from elites in her party, as measured by endorsements from elected officials. Clinton, despite not having declared her candidacy, has already picked up 60 endorsements from Democrats in Congress. As far as I can tell, there isn’t any precedent for something like this. A database of primary endorsements we compiled in 2012 found only a handful of endorsements of a presidential candidate so early in the race.
Moreover, these endorsements are coming from across the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum, including some of the most liberal Democrats. The chart below depicts current Democratic senators ranked from left to center based on their DW-Nominate scores (a statistical system that estimates a member of Congress’s ideological position based on her roll call votes) and shows which ones have already endorsed Clinton. (The chart excludes Montana Sen. John Walsh, who took over for Max Baucus in February and has not yet been scored by DW-Nominate.)
Regardless of ideology, every Democratic woman in the Senate has endorsed Clinton — ranging from very liberal Democrats like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to relatively conservative ones like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. (If she appeals in the same way to women in the electorate, who made up a majority of Democratic primary voters in 2008, she’ll be well positioned in 2016.)
If you placed her on the chart, Clinton would fit squarely in the middle of other Democrats in Congress based on her DW-Nominate score in 2007-08, her last full term as a senator. That’s a good place to be, electorally speaking. Presidential nominees tend to be pretty close to their party’s ideological median as voters and party elites try to weigh electability against ideological orthodoxy.
But aren’t Democrats growing more liberal? Yes, there’s some evidence they are. Still, Democrats hold a fairly diverse range of interests and ideologies. In the 2008 Iowa Caucus, 46 percent of Democratic voters identified themselves as moderate or conservative; just 18 percent described themselves as “very liberal.” (By comparison, only 11 percent of Republican voters in that year’s GOP caucus said they were moderate or liberal, while 45 percent said they were “very conservative.”) Democrats could get quite a bit more liberal without being at risk of leaving Clinton behind. Her base is broad and includes not only coastal liberals but also groups such as baby-boomer women and working-class Democrats whose views tend toward the center-left.
None of this is to say that Clinton should blithely dismiss criticism from liberals. It could make it more likely that some credentialed candidate to her left also runs for the Democratic nomination. That could have negative consequences for Clinton even if the challenge is unlikely to succeed. But for Clinton to lose the Democratic nomination for ideological reasons would require a pronounced leftward shift in the party — something close to an ideological realignment — and not incremental change over the next two years.
CORRECTION (Aug. 13, 7:00 p.m.): An earlier version of the chart in this post omitted several of the senators who have endorsed Hillary Clinton. From left to right, they were: Richard Durbin, Richard Blumenthal, Tim Kaine, Martin Heinrich and Mark Warner.