It’s the candidates who play the long game, and play by the establishment’s rules, who usually win presidential nominations. Political parties have lots of ways to influence the race in favor of these candidates, from how they appoint superdelegates to how they schedule debates. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on advertising, meanwhile, and the bulk usually favors establishment candidates. And voters have a lot of time to make their decisions and can amend them as they go along — an insurgent candidate who wins Iowa or New Hampshire won’t necessarily have staying power if they’ve failed to build a broad coalition of support.
The short run is different. The short run can be crazy. Feedback loops can produce self-reinforcing (but usually temporary) booms and busts of support. For instance, a candidate who has some initial spark of success, such as by doing well in a debate, can receive more favorable media coverage. That, in turn, can beget more success as voters jump on the bandwagon and his poll numbers go up further.
Candidates can just as easily get caught — or entrap themselves — in self-reinforcing cycles of negative media attention and declining poll numbers. Hillary Clinton looks like she’s stuck in one of these ruts right now.
The Washington Post’s David Weigel recently observed that voters were hearing about only three types of Clinton stories, all of which have negative implications for her. First are stories about the scandal surrounding the private email server she used as secretary of state. Next are stories about her declining poll numbers. And third are stories about how Vice President Joe Biden might enter the Democratic presidential race.1
Weigel isn’t exaggerating: For roughly the past two months, voters have heard almost nothing about Clinton apart from these three types of stories. I went through the archives of the news aggregation website Memeorandum, which uses an algorithm to identify the top U.S. news stories of the day. I tracked whether there was a Clinton-related headline in one of the top three positions at 11 a.m. each morning and, if so, what the subject was.2 You can see the results below:
Since Friday, July 24 — I’ll talk about the significance of that date in a moment — there have been 13 mornings when Clinton’s email server was a major story, seven mornings when her bad polling numbers were a major story,3 and seven mornings when speculation about Biden running was a major story. There have also been two other mornings when there were some miscellaneous negative headlines for Clinton, like this one about Bill Clinton’s paid speeches. That’s a total of 29 days of negative coverage in just over seven weeks. Clinton’s campaign has had a lot of bad mornings.
By contrast, I identified just one morning since July 24 when a favorable headline for Clinton gained traction on Memeorandum (the endorsement of Clinton by former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin), along with four other mornings when there was an ambiguous Clinton-related story making news, like this one about her comments on Jeb Bush.
This differs from earlier in the summer. From June 14 — the Sunday after Clinton’s first big campaign speech (on Roosevelt Island in New York) — through mid-July, Clinton wasn’t making all that many headlines. And when she did, there was a fairly even mix of negative and positive stories.
What changed? July 24 was the morning after The New York Times reported that “a criminal investigation” had been launched into whether Clinton had “mishandled sensitive government information” on her email account. That report turned out to be mostly erroneous; the Times later appended an editor’s note to the article, which is about as close as a newspaper will get to retracting a story. Still, the email story was back in the news after several months when there hadn’t been much reported about it. And subsequent stories about the investigation into Clinton’s email server, from the Times and other news outlets, have proved to be better-reported than the Times’s initial misfire.
Meanwhile, that was also about the time that speculation about a late Biden entry ramped up, particularly beginning with an Aug. 1 story by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times.4 A lot of the Biden stories have a Groundhog Day feel to them; they contain relatively little hard evidence about his intentions, and Biden continues to postpone his decision about whether to run. But Biden and his confidants may be deliberately keeping his name in the news to test Democrats’ appetite for a Biden bid. Whenever there’s a lull in the news cycle, Biden’s name seems to pop up again.
Then, of course, there are the stories about Clinton’s poll numbers. The media can, and sometimes will, cherry-pick polls to reinforce its preferred narrative about the campaign, even when the data doesn’t support it. Lately, however, they haven’t needed to cheat: There have been some genuinely poor results for Clinton in the polls. She’s fallen behind Sanders in most polls in New Hampshire and some polls in Iowa, and she increasingly also trails Republicans in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.
No one of these stories is necessarily all that damaging to Clinton on its own. But together, they potentially enhance and reinforce one another. Biden is being included in most polls of the Democratic race, and his numbers have improved as the media has given more coverage to his potential campaign, with most of that support coming from Clinton. Furthermore, the various Clinton scandals — past, present and future — are one of the principal rationales for Biden to run, whether or not he says so explicitly. It’s hard to prove whether the email scandal itself is directly responsible for driving down Clinton’s numbers, and it’s possible that the patina of negative associations generated by the story matter more than the details.5 But it certainly isn’t helping her.
So then: Clinton is toast? Probably not. In the assessment of betting markets, she’s still a reasonably heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination. That’s my assessment too. There are a number of ways the spiral of negative stories could end:
- New news stories could disrupt the cycle.6
- Biden could opt out of the race and possibly also endorse Clinton.
- The trickle of new revelations on the email story could stop — as it largely did from April through June.
- Clinton could lift her poll numbers, perhaps temporarily, with an aggressive advertising spend.
- Clinton could hit some bedrock of support — her most loyal voters — beyond which her poll numbers wouldn’t decline much further.7
- Clinton could fall far enough that the “Clinton comeback” story becomes more compelling to the media than the “Clinton in disarray” story, as happened late in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.
Usually, the biggest risk to candidates in a rut like Clinton’s is that the streak of negative news, even if it’s temporary, can lead to irrevocable effects. It might be silly to count out Scott Walker on the Republican side, for instance: Other candidates, such as John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008, have come back from roughly similar positions to win their party’s nomination. But if Walker’s fundraising dries up, or if his staff defects to other candidates, or his potential supporters rally around another candidate, that could be harder to overcome.
Clinton has fewer such risks given how she’s pre-empted so much of her potential competition from running in the first place and how late it would be for anyone else to enter. In fact, she’s already received the endorsements of the majority of Democrats in Congress.
But Biden has to make his decision soon. My previous thinking had been that he would beat Clinton only if there were another shoe to drop — i.e., another wrinkle in the email story or a new scandal of some kind. But perhaps if the timing were right, he could take advantage of a full-blown panic among Democratic elites even without such a catalyst?
Perhaps. But it would also take a lot of work and entail a lot of embarrassment to unwind the establishment’s support from Clinton. These party elites would have a lot of explaining to do to Democratic voters about what had changed and why they were revoking their support for the first potential woman president in favor of a septuagenarian white guy — and not the septuagenarian white guy from Vermont whom the Democratic grassroots is excited about.
Check out our live coverage of the second Republican debate.