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Steep Hill

Uninevitable Clinton.

THERE ALMOST SEEMS to be a conspiracy dedicated to convincing us that Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee for president. She’s certainly made the inevitability of her victory her primary campaign theme. (Her announcement began, “I’m in. And I’m in to win.”) The press regularly suggests she’ll win. (The Washington Post: “Clinton begins the long campaign as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination.”) Even her most bitter enemies, giving voice to their horror fantasies, say it. (The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page: “The race is between Hillary Rodham Clinton and everybody else.”)

But is Clinton really the front-runner for the nomination? Only if you look about one inch deep. So, before we cancel the primaries in deference to her inevitability, perhaps it’s worth exploring how this odd bit of conventional wisdom came into circulation.

The favorite piece of data cited by the Clinton-is-inevitable crowd is a group of national polls showing her with a commanding lead among Democrats. Some recent surveys show her as the favorite by about 20 percentage points; others show a smaller but still impressive lead.

But national surveys, especially this early in the process, tend to sweep up the lightly held opinions of voters who are paying scant attention to the race, and, as such, they are little more than name-recognition contests. At this point in 2003, after all, polls consistently showed Joe Lieberman leading the Democratic pack.This, of course, merely reflected the fact that he had been the vice presidential nominee three years earlier. When Democratic voters started really paying attention to the race—and to Lieberman—his numbers started going south and never stopped.

But the parallel between Lieberman and Clinton runs even deeper. If you go back and read what campaign reporters were writing four years ago, they all assumed Lieberman would enjoy massive black support owing to his role in the 2000 Florida primary fiasco, which offended black Democrats far more than white ones. The same assumption now seems to hold for Clinton and black voters, with impeachment taking the place of Florida as the defining confrontation that supposedly sealed the eternal loyalty of that constituency. But the far more plausible analysis is that black voters are disproportionately poor, and therefore less likely to spend a lot of time following political news, and therefore (like all low-intensity voters) prone to giving pollsters the name of the best-known candidate. As the election approaches and they tune in more carefully, their choices, like those of the electorate generally, could easily change. (If you have a short memory, I’ll remind you that no, Joe Lieberman did not enjoy a massive wave of black support when the primaries arrived.)

So national polls don’t mean much right now. A more accurate (though still imperfect) gauge is polls in early primary states. Why are they more accurate? First, because voters in those states tend to focus on the race earlier than elsewhere. And, second, because their verdict has massive ripple effects elsewhere. Think about the 2004 Iowa primary, which singlehandedly destroyed the Howard Dean juggernaut and vaulted John Kerry, long confined to also-ran status, into the lead across the country.

In these polls, by contrast, Clinton is far from the undisputed favorite. Polls in New Hampshire show her slightly trailing Barack Obama. One recent poll in Iowa had Clinton running fourth, about ten points behind front-runner John Edwards. Whoever wins in these early states is probably going to win the nomination, and, right now, Clinton, while certainly in the thick of it, is hardly running away with the race.

In a memo published the day she announced her candidacy, Clinton pollster Mark Penn offered up a rebuttal to this inconvenient fact. Clinton, he argued, is bound to rise in the early primary states as she spends more time there. But other candidates will be spending more time in Iowa and New Hampshire, too. The question is: Which candidate is more likely to benefit from endless hours of speechifying, hand-shaking, and town hall meetings? There’s no reason to think the answer will be Clinton. While she may be just as smart as—and more experienced than—Edwards and Obama, she is an average orator, while Edwards is a very good one and Obama is a brilliant one. Having seen all three give speeches, it’s hard for me to imagine how a prolonged side-by-side comparison will move voters into Clinton’s camp. And, as the best-known of the leading candidates, she’ll have the hardest time making a strong new impression anyway.

IF CLINTON’S ONLY problem were her mediocre communications skills, she might still be in great shape. (John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis weren’t exactly William Jennings Bryan out there.) Unfortunately, she has several other weaknesses, which are mutually reinforcing and quite possibly fatal.

Weakness number one is that many Democrats—especially, but not exclusively, moderate ones—see her as a bad bet to win a general election. The bill of particulars is that she’s culturally polarizing, irreparably damaged by a decade and a half of conservative attacks, and vulnerable to sexist fears about a female commander-in-chief during wartime. Since 2000, Clinton has addressed this vulnerability in numerous ways: She has rhetorically wooed cultural conservatives on issues like abortion and flag-burning, and she has staked out hawkish terrain on foreign policy, endorsing the Iraq war and refusing to repudiate her vote authorizing force.

Despite all that, concerns about her electability remain. Penn points to some polls showing her leading John McCain in a trial match-up. But this is hardly reassuring. General public support forthe Democratic Party is higher than at any time in recent memory. Asked which party it would rather see win the White House in 2008, the public chose Democrats by a staggering 20-point margin. So the fact that a couple of polls show Clinton slightly ahead of McCain, while other polls show her trailing, in fact bodes very ill for her general election prospects. Moreover, some of the polls that show her trailing likely Republican nominees show Edwards and/or Obama leading, despite their lower name recognition.

Meanwhile, the moves Clinton has made to placate the political center have enraged the left. That’s weakness number two. The left wing of the Democratic Party has always been alienated from her husband, and, naturally, she has borne the brunt of that alienation. But her feints to the center—and, above all, Iraq—have stoked that alienation into hot fury. In the most recent straw poll on the liberal blog DailyKos, she pulled in an anemic 4 percent of the vote. (For comparison, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson each drew 5 percent.) Liberal bloggers may not be perfectly representative of liberal voters in general, or even liberal activists in general, but they do represent a genuine grassroots sentiment, which is why massive blogger excitement about Howard Dean foreshadowed his vault to the top of the Democratic pack.

The thing that most infuriates the left is Clinton’s refusal to repudiate her war vote, as Edwards has done. “She hasn’t done the sort of ritual ‘You were right and I was wrong’ statement about her original vote on Iraq,” notes Democratic Leadership Council senior fellow Ed Kilgore. But there’s a good reason why she hasn’t done this—namely, that it would cause massive hemorrhaging to her personal image, which is weakness number three. Clinton’s opponents have, for the most part successfully, painted her as a soulless schemer. This image, fair or not, has long since penetrated the popular consciousness: A recent “Saturday Night Live” skit portrayed her declaring, “I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere.”

Taken together, these three weaknesses look like an inescapable vise. Anything she does to placate the center alienates the left. Anything she does to placate the left alienates the center. And, if she tries any clever, please-everybody Clintonian positioning, she alienates everybody. Is it impossible she’ll nonetheless find a way to win the nomination? No, but it’s a far cry from inevitable.

This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.