The good news for Democrats is that Hillary Clinton is too big to fail. She won New York by 15 points. She’s raising plenty of money and is hitting just the right notes to gently smother the last gasps of life out of Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign. She seems on track to wrap up the nomination before July and save her party the mutiny that Republicans are dreading for themselves.
But the bad news for Democrats is the same as the good news: Like the Wall Street banks just before the 2008 crash, Hillary Clinton’s campaign seems to be winning because she is supposed to win, not because she has the fundamental attributes of a great campaign.
Looking like a winner has always been a big part of politics. Most voters won’t support a candidate who doesn’t have a chance. But looking like a winner becomes dangerous when inevitability obscures the kind of flaws that would doom a smaller campaign or one that seemed less destined for greatness. For Clinton, it began even before she announced her candidacy.
Months before she got in, Clinton was polling more than 60 points ahead of any other Democrat in the country. Her early dominance told other contenders: “Don’t even bother.” And for the most part, they didn’t.
With the field mostly cleared, Clinton’s sure-thing status began to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nearly every high-profile Democrat in the country endorsed Clinton, including those who had backed President Barack Obama over her in 2008. She locked down all the top bundlers early and signed up nearly every top strategist in the party, including staff from the Obama administration and Capitol Hill.
Very quickly, the Democratic Party establishment’s success became deeply ingrained in Hillary Clinton’s success. There was no Plan B. The only incentive was to propel Clinton to victory. She was too big to fail.
Clinton coasted for months after she launched her campaign on Roosevelt Island in New York. Sanders remained such a long shot through the spring of 2015 that he was literally an asterisk in most polls where a number should have been, because his entire support within the party remained within the margin of error. Left on her own at the front of the (small) pack, Clinton held small listening sessions, avoided the media and went about her business.
But as the summer heated up, so did the race. Clinton’s use of a private email server at the State Department began to dog her in the press, as did Republicans’ demands that she testify about her role responding to the deadly attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. But Democrats — and Sanders — dismissed the email issue as nothing to look at and the Benghazi probe as partisan politics. Voters felt differently and her numbers began to drop — among independents, among liberal Democrats and worst of all, among young women.
Improbably, those voters began to migrate to Sanders, the 74-year-old Socialist grump, whom most Democrats had long dismissed as a fringe protest candidate. As he packed venues with thousands and raised millions in small-dollar donations from passionate progressives, Clinton and the national Democrats forged ahead with their methodical plans to win votes, and ultimately delegates, when and where they needed to.
Her speeches kept their rat-a-tat rhythm. Her approval numbers edged down, but not out. Not many people seemed especially inspired, but she stayed the course and did what she needed to do. The entire operation had the fierce urgency of meh.
Throughout the campaign, Clinton’s likelihood of success seemed to be the main factor behind her success in the first place. Basic questions that nearly every campaign faces remained unanswered. Does the candidate connect? Does she inspire? Does she align with where the party is going? Do voters like her?
The initial consensus that Clinton would win the nomination allowed Democrats to ignore the question of whether she should win the nomination. The result is a likely nominee of considerable strengths, significant vulnerabilities and no idea how she’ll perform in an aggressive election environment because she hasn’t faced one in eight years.
On the morning before her New York victory, an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll showed that just 32 percent of registered voters view Clinton favorably. Just 22 percent said she could bring necessary change to the country, while 19 percent said she was honest and straightforward.
Those numbers would be a five-alarm catastrophe for any other candidate in any other year. But the same poll that showed Clinton under water also showed Donald Trump, her likely opponent, practically drowning. As of now, Clinton would beat Trump by 11 points.
A message of “It Could be Worse,” isn’t exactly “Yes We Can,” but in 2016 it might be enough, even for a candidate too big to fail.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill Bureau Chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane. Follow her at @1patriciamurphy.
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