Is Hillary Inevitable?

Pundits have pretty well conceded the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. In a basic sense, this is a reversal of recent history. Over the last few decades, it is the Republicans who have loyally nominated the heir apparent, the guy whose “turn” it was, even when–as when the GOP nominated Bob Dole in 1996–it was clear that he had little or no chance to win. The Democrats, on the other hand, have been willing to nominate candidates who started out as “second tier,” if they like the way they perform in the early going. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are good examples. Now that we all know what a skillful politician Clinton is, it is hard to remember that when the Democrats nominated him in 1992, it was almost exactly the same as if the Republicans were to nominate Mike Huckabee next year.
So this coronation of Hillary Clinton is a departure for the Democrats, and perhaps a premature one. That’s what our friend Tom Bevan argues at Real Clear Politics:

[I]t’s nuts to sit here in September and say Hillary can’t be stopped. We don’t know whether she can be stopped, and we won’t know whether she can be stopped until we get within a couple weeks of the caucuses and watch as voters start getting serious about making their choice.

Tom’s point is that history shows the early primaries and caucuses are highly volatile, with many voters making up their minds at the last minute. He posts two graphs, which I’ve taken the liberty of stealing–I trust Tom won’t mind–that make the point eloquently. This one is of 2004 Iowa polls; click to enlarge:

Knowing how it all turned out, it is a bit shocking to be reminded that in early 2004, the frontrunners in Iowa were Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. Likewise in New Hampshire:

Again, at a point well ahead of where we are today, the prohibitive favorite was Howard Dean, with Wesley Clark in second place. Dean’s collapse in Iowa enabled Kerry’s comeback–a comeback from a state of campaign near-death, as Paul and I noted last night.
Tom Bevan’s conclusion is that Iowa is critical for Hillary. If she wins there, the mantle of inevitability may be too heavy to be overcome. But if she loses, the wheels could come off her campaign. I think Tom is right about that, but I would add that even after Iowa, funny things could happen, as they so often do in politics. Hillary may well win the Dems’ nomination, but to concede it to her at this point, with not a delegate selected, is definitely premature.
And, of course, that goes double on the much more wide-open Republican side.
PAUL demurs: Hillary may not be inevitable, but I don’t think Iowa is critical for her. Bevan knows this stuff better than I do, but it seems to me that a number of front-runners have survived poor showings in Iowa. Dean didn’t, but that’s because he went off the deep end shortly before all the voting started. Don’t expect Hillary to do that. And don’t expect Clinton’s feminist base to be as fickle as Dean’s anti-war base was.
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