Thursday, January 31, 2013

Power Rankings: The Democrats

Welcome to the first Prez16 Power Rankings!

Today we're looking at the Democratic race for the nomination. Next week, we'll take a look at the Republican field.

The simple question the power rankings will try to answer is this: who, at this point in time, has the best chance of being the next Democratic presidential nominee.


Hillary is as iconic as the Morton Salt girl, except she doesn't need an umbrella because it's never raining on her.

Hillary is as tested and gritty as Ray Lewis, except she doesn't need to squirt deer antler spray under her tongue.

Hillary lights up the room like the sun, except she doesn't have U.V. rays that can give you skin cancer (especially if you live in Australia. Skin cancer and sharks. That's Australia).

Hillary is as historic as her pseudo-namesake, Edmund Hillary, except she's been to 112 countries as Secretary of State; not just a big mountain.

Hillary is as popular as Christmas, except she doesn't have pagan origins.

So Hillary is all those things, and yet she is also this one thing --- she's politically vulnerable.

Lost in the legitimate hype about her electoral promise is the fact that she lost her last run for national office after entering the overwhelming front-runner.

In fact, Hillary's popularity has fluctuated wildly over the course of her public career, and we've learned that what's been up can certainly go down, and in Hillary's case, the phenomenon has been quite dramatic.

If you look at her current prospects through the prism of her career, you can't ignore these fluctuations -- you have to try to look for a pattern.

So here's the pattern.

a. Whenever Hillary Clinton is viewed as a political figure, her ratings fall.

That's true of practically every figure who straddles the line between fairly apolitical roles (general, Secretary of State) and political ones, but we've seen Hillary try to do national politics twice, and she's sputtered twice.

First, in 1993, when she tried to foist HillaryCare upon the country and second, in 2008, when she tried to foist herself on the country.

And even though she won over a thousand delegates and received over 17 million votes, she lost, and supremely popular and generationally-gifted politicians don't squander a giant lead when they have it.

Instead, the greatest politicians take someone else's lead and turn it into their own. Like Barack Obama did to Hillary in 2008.

Yes, 2008 taught us that Hillary is a good candidate, but that Barack Obama was a special candidate and the gulf dividing "good" from "special" often divides a presidential candidate from the presidency.

Then there's this (which I wrote about last week).

Contrary to the common narrative about the country being swept up in collective adoration over Hillary vs. Obama, it turns out that Hillary Clinton wasn't too popular with those outside the Democratic party.

In fact, the independents who would go on to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 general election were thoroughly underwhelmed with her in the 2008 primary.

Look at this graph from Gallup. Throughout the 2007 and the 2008 primary season, her favorable ratings with independents were mired in the mid-40% and only reached 50% once. And remember, this is when independents weren't just disgruntled tea partiers. Indies ended up voting for Obama over McCain by 8%.

So if you accept the notion that truly great candidates don't fall from "overwhelming front-runner" to runner-up (as Hillary did in 2008), you have to agree that Hillary wasn't a truly great candidate.


Simply put, she wasn't a very likable candidate.

In fact, we tend to think of Obama snarking "you're likable enough, Hillary" in the New Hampshire debate as the moment that Hillary went on the upswing and clawed back into the race.

But think about it another way: Her likability problems had prompted both the moderator's question and Obama's snark.

Sure, her answer made her likable (for that week), but she was clearly struggling with the likability factor from the outset of the race.

And, if you remember, there was a pattern then and always with Hillary wherein she tends to be likable when she's the underdog.

It happened when she was First Lady and the Lewinsky story broke -- her popularity soared. It happened when Obama snarked at her in New Hampshire, and we saw it throughout the rest of the primary. Obama always had trouble putting her away, because she played best from behind.

Now how will Hillary come into 2016? As the overwhelming front-runner, and when is she at her least likable? As the overwhelming front-runner.

There's nothing to suggest Hillary has fixed her likability problem. During the Lewinsky hearings, her likability shot up to its current levels, but then fell dramatically when she became a candidate for president.

Did her fundamental personality, her essence change in that time? No. What changed was the public's perception -- instead of viewing her as an apolitical First Lady, they saw her as an ambitious politician, and she didn't wear it well.

In short, I don't think Hillary has suddenly learned how to be a likable candidate after four years as Secretary of State.

And, as we saw with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, likability is paramount in presidential politics.

So why is Hillary at the top of the power rankings?

She currently has everything you technically need -- gobs of money with the snap of a hand, heaps of endorsements without even a phone call, the utter admiration of her entire party, a Democratic party desperate to be the first to nominate a female, and the sweet sheen of four years as a political name in an apolitical role that, really, makes anyone look good.

But as a candidate, the likability thing still looms.

And that's why she's vulnerable.


If Hillary doesn't run, Kirsten Gillibrand sneaks into the top spot.

Here's why.

TDemocratic party -- above all else -- wants to nominate a woman, and Gillibrand is a stronger candidate than Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Further, if Hillary doesn't run, conventional wisdom would put two white males at the top of the heap -- NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden.

But both are, again, white males, and there's a realistic shot the Republican party will nominate a minority (Marco Rubio) or The Demographic Holy Grail (Hispanic AND female, Susana Martinez).

In that case, there'll be tremendous pressure on Democrats to eschew a white male and pick a woman or minority.

And Gillibrand is stronger than the Democratic women I just mentioned and stronger than the two potential, African-American candidates, Cory Booker and MA Gov. Deval Patrick.

But this isn't simply a process of elimination thing. There's much more to love about Gillibrand.

a. She plays well across the ideological spectrum.

Gillibrand came to Congress by winning an upstate Republican district, against all odds. She campaigned as a conservative Democrat, she voted like a conservative Democrat, and she won reelection, 62%-38%, as a conservative Democrat.

But then she was tapped to replace outgoing Senator Hillary Clinton, and managed to pull off a dramatic ideological reversal. She became a staunch liberal by nearly every standard, led the crusade to reverse Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and cozied up to the most powerful liberal interest groups.

And despite the dramatic shift, she won full reelection to her Senate seat with 72% of the vote -- the strongest showing by a New York senator in history.

So what have we learned about Gillibrand's electoral capabilities? She can pass herself off as a conservative Democrat and as a liberal crusader and win by huge margins doing both.

Now, what does a successful presidential candidate need to do? Run to the Left in a primary and scurry to the middle in a general election. It takes a nimble politician to do that, and Gillibrand has already proven she can do it.

b. She connects with key groups.

Growing up in and then representing an upstate district, she's become fluent in the rural issues that folks care about and chats about it with a pleasant demeanor that Iowans love (easy-going, real).

And yet, she can then move effortlessly into the realm of coastal elites who give you the money you need to win the rest of the country.

In 2008, Barack Obama had trouble making the cultural transitions, and that's why he kept losing white, working class voters to Hillary Clinton.

But Gillibrand has what Bill Clinton had -- the ability to weave from the fast lane to the slow lane without applying brakes, all while carrying on a conversation to the adult sitting next to you and the child in the car seat behind you.

c. Sex appeal.

You can't be Gerald Ford anymore and become president, and there's no better looking candidate in the field than Gillibrand.

But, importantly, she doesn't seem to try too hard. The girl next door is the girl next door because she's approachable, because your knees don't shake when you knock on her door, they only shake when you leave and start thinking about her.

Gillibrand has that quality. It's not going to set the internet aflame like Sarah Palin, but it also won't provoke questions about whether she's popular just because she's sexy.

That's the hard truth about the easy business of predicting presidential politics and sex appeal.

NOW... all that being said, Gillibrand carries an enormous liability -- one that could sink her.

While working as a lawyer, she defended Philip Morris from lawsuits about what the cigarette-maker knew and didn't tell consumers about addiction. Gillibrand didn't just play a tertiary role; she was a point person and deeply involved in defending Morris.

You can read about it in this pretty damning New York Times report.

Gillibrand's electoral potential is enormously imressive, but read that NYT report and try not to convulse. It's really revolting stuff, and if the media presses her on it, it could turn into a nightmare for Gillibrand.


A New Yorker can win Iowa.

But can someone who could only conceivably come from New York win Iowa?

In other words, take one look and one listen to Andrew Cuomo, and you immediately know he's not from Colorado, couldn't be from Ohio, and has never set foot in Alabama, except maybe to learn a thing or two about death stares and the absence of joy from Nick Saban.

Cuomo could bring quite a few good things to the 2016 race: Record popularity in his homestate, an enviable, general election-friendly record that's produced strong pension reform, a property tax cap, same-sex marriage, and a big push on gun control. Plus, voters tend to like governors and if they reward the strongest one with a presidential nomination, Cuomo would certainly be the winner.

But while Cuomo has his famous father Mario's last name, he doesn't have his Pops' oratorical chops or charisma. He doesn't seem to want to soar, he wants to get in a Range Rover and rumble over rocky political ground and get you to the other side, safely and efficiently.

Cuomo is a doer, but sometimes that doesn't get it done in presidential primaries.

If, indeed, he does run for president, he won't win Iowa, and he'll struggle in any state where working class Democrats make up a substantial portion of the electorate.

He'll also have trouble galvanizing the Democratic party's largest demographic constituency: women.

First, it's not clear how many will love his live-in girlfriend, the Food Network's Sandra Lee -- either because of the fact that she's so annoyingly presumptuous in assuming you'll like her awful food, or because of the fact they're living together and Cuomo, reportedly, doesn't see the need to marry (nor does Lee, but the fact is that the burden is usually on the guy to explain his way out of the absence of marital commitment).

Second, Cuomo doesn't strike you as immediately empathetic, sympathetic, or committed on women's issues. He's very much of a "he", and he wouldn't have a prayer against Hillary, Gillibrand, or Klobuchar among women (and women are the party's most powerful constituency).

And then there's this big complication -- he's had a fraught relationship with progressive activists.

One of the reasons Barack Obama was able to beat Hillary Clinton is that the progressive base rallied around him early. They knew he was one of them -- much more so than Hillary. Obama came into the race with one active base (progressives) and another that he suspected would eventually come on board (blacks).

Cuomo would come into the race without a natural base -- that's the problem with coming into any primary with a centrist record.

So why is he #3 on the power rankings? Because the Democratic field really is that weak.

Think about it: under ordinary circumstances, it would have been hard to make a case for why John Kerry would win a Democratic nomination. The only thing compelling about Kerry was that he was a Compelling Default. Just like Mitt Romney.

And Cuomo, in the absence of anyone else catching fire, is The Compelling Default of the race.

He could raise tons of money, obliterate opponents with ads, and default his way to a nomination. But once again, only in the absence of Hillary or Gillibrand.


How can he be this low? Part of me is wondering: How can he be this high?

Joe Biden has already run for president twice and flamed out miserably both times.

In 1988, he was considered a front-runner and had, at one point, raised more money than any other Democratic candidate, but he became embroiled in a plagiarizing scandal and dropped out before the first primary.

Now think about it: Bill Clinton also was embroiled in an even more explosive scandal but fairly easily won the nomination and presidency. Why? Because he was a much better candidate.

Then in 2008, Biden ran for president again and while he actually made it to the first contest (Iowa), he withdrew shortly thereafter and was never considered a top-tier candidate.

Biden didn't flop either time because of lack of name ID, lack of press, or lack of experience. He just lacked support. And there's nothing to suggest a third run would be any more successful than the first.

Some might point to his recent win streak (fiscal cliff, guns) as proof he's got a shot, but he was a decorated senator with plenty of accomplishments before his 1988 and 2008 runs.

He's just not a strong candidate.

One more thing on that score: Biden's appeal to the white, working class is one of the most pervasive, political myths out there.

In the final Fox News poll of the 2012 season, Biden's favorability with white men was 32%/61% for -29% and among whites with no college degree, he stood at -13%. Barack Obama's numbers with white men were actually higher than Biden's.

Of course, that doesn't fit the conventional wisdom that Biden is a hero to gritty, blue collar folks from Scranton. But poll after poll during the 2012 race showed Obama actually outperforming Biden with white men.

Here's another thing -- he's been vice-president for four years, has name ID through the roof, and yet in a December CNN poll, only 26% of Democrats said they were "very likely" to support him. He clearly hasn't sealed any sort of deal, and he's been working on it for the past four years.

Having said all that, there are two reasons why you can't count Biden out -- George H.W. Bush and Al Gore.

Both of those former vice-presidents lost presidential runs, didn't really seem to cultivate much enthusiasm as vice-presidents, struggled to maintain strong favorable ratings, and yet still won their party's nomination.

So it can happen.

But I tend to think the boomlet in Biden is severely overrated. After four years of being vice-president, he's still largely viewed as a cultural punchline.

Vice-presidential gigs are supposed to confer some aura of gravitas and weightiness, and it seems to have done nothing, image-wise, for Biden, except to score a lot of funny Onion stories.

The only way he gets over the top is if someone pushes him -- either Barack Obama puts his political capital to work for him, Hillary Clinton opts out and gives Biden her blessing, or Democratic donors move to him by default.

But if Biden -- the mythic "man of the people" -- wins, it won't be at the hand of the people, but rather the promptings of the upper echelon of the party.


She's the Rick Santorum of the field -- a passionate activist/politician who stirs the base, but makes everyone else uncomfortable.

Liberals will chafe at comparing her to Santorum, and in one way, it isn't fair. Warren will be able to raise big money, and Santorum was perpetually underfunded and would have withered without the largesse of Super PAC savior, Foster Friess.

But beyond the money thing, the comparison works.

To the world outside his base, Santorum's flirt with actually winning the GOP nomination was nothing short of extraordinary and a bit disconcerting. The same would be true of the ultra-liberal, Warren.

But there are two reasons she has a legitimate shot.

a. She really excites the base.


b. The base might be in overreach mode.

What's overreach mode?

After eight years of an increasingly liberal Obama, activists will want to replace him with another liberal; in fact, they'll expect it. Why move to the middle when you've just had spectacular success with a liberal president?

Democrats only turned to the middle in 1992 after twelve years of Republican presidents. But successful activists and parties don't turn the volume down; they buy a bigger amp -- one that even goes to 11.

Finally, there's one more component to add to the Warren formula for success: she's female.

That creates the following candidate: a hardcore liberal who excites a demanding base and happens to be female.

Under normal circumstances, Democrats would likely be more circumspect and consider whether they really wanted to put their life savings into Herbal Life.

But 2016 could be Warren's time -- not because of Warren but because of time.


He shouldn't be here for many reasons. For one, he's a mayor, and there's another former mayor with a stronger record and better experience (Hi, Martin O'Malley!).

But we saw Tim Pawlenty near the top of every power ranking throughout the 2008 election, and T-Paw never even made it to the first primary. O'Malley probably won't do much better.

(On a related note, I know what informs most power rankings -- experience, political chits collected, record etc., but while all those things are necessary for winning a presidential nomination, they're certainly not sufficient and, in a celebrity world, they're getting less important.

That means we can't put guys like O'Malley, who theoretically should be near the top but lack any discernible X-Factor, higher in power rankings. These are meant to be somewhat realistic predictions about who's got the best shot to be nominee).

So here's why Booker's got a legit shot.

The only thing holding back Cory Booker is Cory Booker, and Cory Booker never holds Cory Booker back.

In other words, he's got unbelievable potential, and he is totally committed to squeezing out every drop of that potential as quickly as possible.

If you think Booker won't run for president (he's a mayor right now, after all), just think about these few things.

Would the guy who, rather precociously, is angling to run against an iconic incumbent Democratic Senator, Frank Lautenberg, hold back?

Would the guy who makes a huge show of saving a freezing dog hold back?

Would a guy who gives a speech "How to change the world with your bare hands" hold back?

No, Booker's dalliance with a primary challenge of Lautenberg shows that he won't hold back for the sake of propriety. His pass on challenging Chris Christie shows he'll only hold back for the sake of political convenience.

And the fact is that 2016 might be an inconvenient time for Booker to run, particularly if Hillary Clinton runs.

But let's say Booker does run for Senate in 2014, wins, and becomes a senator. He'll then have stronger experience coming into 2016 than Barack Obama had in 2008 (an admittedly low bar).

He'll also have more free media than Apple. In a Hillary-less world, everything will be about Cory Booker -- both for good and ill.

The good is that Booker is charismatic in a way no one else in the field is, can talk liberal and centrist with unnatural ease, can possibly consolidate the black vote, and is a fresher face than Whole Foods after a shower.

The bad is that Booker doesn't have Barack Obama's natural discipline, and if you've got that first platter of attributes (charisma, enthusiasm, youth), you absolutely have to have discipline or else your tongue will betray you, and you will crash hard under the brightest lights the world will ever rain on you.

If Booker does run for Senate and if Hillary passes on a run, I suspect Booker will make a go of it in 2016.


I like her.

You will, too. And so will everyone. I also like John Thune. You would, too. And so would everyone.

But both Klobuchar and Thune share a low-key "sensibility" that's supremely likable but supremely unmoving, and you've got to have both to win.

Klobuchar is a moderate-to-liberal Democratic senator from Minnesota with strong experience, a solid record in the Senate, and the ability to connect with disparate ideologies and interest groups. She comes from the Midwest and would play extremely well in Iowa.

But after Iowa, it's hard to see where Klobuchar fits in. New Hampshire and its all-female delegation would, at first, seem a good fit, except if Hillary runs, women will flock to Hillary, and if Hillary passes and Gillibrand runs, they'll go to her.

There's also the fact that she's from Minnesota, which isn't a fountain of money. Hillary, Gillibrand, Cuomo, Biden, and Booker could all out-raise her, and if you're a) not well-known and b) not well-funded and c) a somewhat dry person, it's hard to see how Klobuchar could pull off a break-out moment.


Breitbart's Tony Lee is fond of calling Martin O'Malley the T-Paw of 2016, and I couldn't agree more.

Hillary or not, O'Malley will run for president, and he'll be the most brazen about it over the next few years, and he'll make connections, and he'll make great hires (he just did so this week) and he'll get serious consideration by serious people, and he'll get all that because he's a two-term governor with lots of big wins on social issues.

But he just doesn't have it. And by "it", I mean "it", and by that I mean mystique, gravitas, warmth, or oratory.

We're in the very early stages of the 2016 race, but if O'Malley were going to stand out four years from now, he would have stood out by now to political junkies. But face it: we always knew T-Paw was more hype than hope, and O'Malley is the same.

Watch his 2012 DNC speech. There's a whole lot of try going on. Watch his state of the state speech last night. Again, a whole lot of try. In fact, O'Malley will try, try, and try again throughout the next four years, and as such, he'll be a model to America's youth. But just not as the guy you'll call president.

O'Malley is a workhorse, but there's a difference between a workhorse and a showhorse, and there's a difference between a showhorse and a Unicorn.

You can easily imagine Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Cory Booker riding in on a unicorn with the sun shining behind them. O'Malley, not so much. Simply put, he doesn't pass The Unicorn Test.

Darkhorses: Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Deval Patrick, Mark Warner.