Happy New Year, Hillary

In our end-of-the-year podcast for 2014, I predicted that in the coming year Hillary Clinton would not “clear the field” in her quest for the Democratic nomination. (I also predicted that the Washington Nationals would play in the World Series — they didn’t even make the playoffs — and that Everton would have its worst season in almost a decade — they did, sadly).

By “clearing the field,” I meant facing no opponent who poses a serious threat to defeat her in the early primary/caucus contests. In this scenario, she would be free to tack towards the center, if she saw fit, without worrying about having a Democratic opponent exploit her “centrism.”

Last fall, just before the first Democratic presidential debate, my Clinton prediction looked golden. After that debate, though, it appeared that Clinton might just clear herself of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. The Vermont Socialist had struggled to explain a non-leftist position he took on guns and had ruled Hillary’s “damn emails” out as an issue in his campaign.

But it’s now January 2016, and Sanders remains a factor in the Democratic race. In fact, the polls say he leads Clinton in New Hampshire and maybe in Iowa too.

In the Granite State, a new Monmouth University poll shows Sanders in front 53-49. Two months ago, Clinton led Sanders in same poll by 48-45 (after trailing in September by 43-36).

As for Iowa, an ever newer poll from Quinnipiac has Sanders ahead of Clinton 49-44. Quinnipiac’s polling director notes that in the previous three months, Clinton held a double-digit lead.

It’s clear that Clinton’s gender is propping her up in Iowa. Men prefer Sanders by a ratio of 2-1.

Clinton also profits from being viewed as more electable than Sanders. Likely Democratic Caucus participants give Sanders an 87-3 percent favorability rating, compared to 74-21 for Clinton. They view him as more sharing their values, more honest and trustworthy, and better able to handle the economy(!) and climate change. However, 85 percent of Democrats say Clinton would have a good chance of winning in November, while 68 percent say Sanders has a good chance of accomplishing this.

I wonder, though, whether “electability” will be a big factor in the decision of Iowa caucus-goers. They may well follow their heart and let the remaining 49 states and the District of Columbia worry about next November. I would in their position, and I’m usually big on electability.

Losses in New Hampshire and Iowa would hardly be fatal to Clinton. In fact, she would remain a heavy favorite to win the nomination. Her prospects in the many states where (unlike Iowa and New Hampshire) African-Americans make up a goodly percentage of the Democratic population are excellent.

But early losses, especially in Iowa, would be highly embarrassing to Clinton. They would also compel her to continue to focus on running against a Socialist rather than a Republican — in other words to delay any tacking towards the center.

That’s why Clinton, for the first time, is now attacking Sanders fairly hard. As CNN’s Brianna Keilar recently said (see below):

I think you can see just by how much [Hillary Clinton] is stepping up the attacks on Bernie Sanders here in recent days. Something that she really hasn’t done for her entire campaign, you can see how much concern there is in her campaign.

I should also note that, due to her potential legal problems (Sanders may not care about the damn emails but the FBI does), Clinton arguably hasn’t cleared the field of Joe Biden. Steve took up this matter earlier today.

Add it all up, and Hillary’s New Year isn’t off to the happy start many expected not long ago.

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