Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Hillary Clinton and the Narrowing Democratic Field

By Alex GoldsteinPublished November 11, 2015

Over the past few weeks, Hillary Clinton has strengthened her claim to the Democratic nomination. Following Vice President Biden's decision not to run for president and Clinton's strong performances at the first Democratic Debate and the Benghazi hearing she has continued to separate herself from Senator Bernie Sanders as the most likely Democratic candidate.

By Alex Goldstein
Photo Credit

    As the 2016 election rapidly approaches, the Democratic field continues to narrow.  Following a shaky start to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, in which she saw a commanding national lead gradually slip with the unexpected rise of Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders, she has regained traction.  After a series of victories and a streak of good luck, the former Secretary of State has proven why she alone stands as the Democrats' best chance to maintain the White House in 2016. 

    Meanwhile, the candidate that the Republican Party will ultimately choose remains uncertain.  According to a recent poll, conducted by the New York Times and CBS, Ben Carson now leads Donald Trump for the first time nationally by a margin of 26 percent to Trump's 22 percent.  At the same time, more long term polls, taking into account fundraising and "an array of markets in which traders [...] trade stock tied to candidates' fortunes" now foresee Marco Rubio's chances of winning the nomination at 34 percent compared to Jeb Bush's mere 23 percent.  The Republican field remains crowded and unpredictable with fifteen candidates still in the race, representing a wide range of policy positions and interpretations of the role of government. 

    The Democrats can look on more optimistically as the party unties behind its likely nominee.  On October 21, Vice President Joe Biden announced that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president.  Though this news came as a shock to some, and a disappointment to others, it was likely received with a sense of relief from the Clinton camp.  No potential candidate represented a greater threat to Clinton's run than the Vice President.  A highly electable candidate with plenty of experience, high favorability ratings, and a sympathetic life story, Biden seemed to be the only candidate to present a serious challenge to Clinton.  With his announcement, many of the 22 percent of Democratic voters supporting Biden have switched over in favor of Clinton.  Following the announcement, Clinton's polling numbers jumped to 51 percent in an Iowa poll, 11 points up from her numbers in September, while Bernie Sanders remained at 40 percent. 

    And while the Vice President's decision not to run has been a factor in Clinton's rising numbers, it is also a result of her perceived strength within the Democratic establishment.  After waiting this long to make a decision, it became clear that Biden had missed his moment.  A Wall Street Journal/ NBC News survey conducted before Biden's announcement found that only 15 percent of Democratic voters considered Biden their first choice, compared to Clinton's 49 percent and Senator Sander's 29 percent.  Additionally, a lack of endorsements from other Democratic politicians and large campaign donors made the prospect of a presidential bid even less realistic.  While it is likely that spending more time with his family and working on other projects played a role in his decision, it is also likely that he realized the inevitable futility of a presidential run.

    Former Secretary of State Clinton's recent success has gone further than her rising numbers in the polls.  Her strong performance at the first Democratic debate proved her ability to remain composed while utilizing her years of experience and political acumen.  She came across as a strong candidate who could work with Republicans to overcome the stalemate of American politics that has disillusioned so many voters.  She also presented herself as a strong critic of the gun lobby, in sharp contrast to Senator Sanders, while strategically defended her record on the Iraq War and close ties with Wall Street.  Just as things were beginning to get shaky for the former Secretary of State on a question regarding her email controversy, Senator Sanders jumped in on a move that he admitted "might not be the best politics" arguing that the American people are tired of hearing about Clinton's email "scandal."  The crowd roared with applause and Clinton got off without having to deliver what would have likely been a well-rehearsed explanation of her mistake. Despite Senator Sanders immediate rise in the polls following the debate, most media networks agreed that Clinton was the clear winner.  The subsequent drops from the race of Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee, both polling at below one percent before and after the debate, are by no means unrelated to the growing popularity of Clinton and Sanders.

    With the path to the nomination clearing in front of her and the first Democratic Debate, Clinton faced yet another obstacle in the form of an eleven hour interrogation over the events that occurred in Benghazi while she was Secretary of State, the seventh hearing of its kind.  While this committee was created with the intention of dropping Hillary Clinton's numbers in the polls, a statement that Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Richard Hanna have both admitted, Clinton came out of the hearings looking stronger than ever.  Once again, she remained composed and honest, answering the often repetitive and personally targeting questions of the Republican Chairman, Trey Gowdy, and other Republican members of the Committee.  She emerged from the hearing looking far more sensible than those that had been attacking her and unscathed by the hours of questioning, during which no implicating evidence was presented.  The absurdity of the hearing, coupled with Clinton's calm, allowed it to serve the opposite of its intended effect, making Clinton appear trustworthy and smooth, in contrast to representatives of the Republican Party.

    Clinton has seen a public rise over the past few weeks, defined by her strong performances and unification of the Democratic Party.  She has finally begun to present herself as a relatable candidate, not only because of her endorsements by celebrities like Lena Dunham and appearance on Saturday Night Live.  As long as she continues to present herself as the most qualified candidate- confident, but not arrogant; experienced, but not a symbol of the Washington establishment- her path to the Democratic nomination should be relatively smooth.  After that, her presidential run will depend heavily on whether the Republicans can unite behind one candidate and overcome their incessant quarreling.