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Stranger Things Have Happened

July 19, 2010

With Democrats headed for a man-made disaster in November and the Obama presidency increasingly looking like a quagmired domestic-contingency operation, speculation about Hillary Clinton running for president in 2012 is on the rise. We know Mrs. Clinton has a strong desire to be the president, but will she step down as secretary of state and challenge Barack Obama, the first African-American president and a fellow Democrat, and if she won her party’s nomination what are her prospects for winning the general election?

The conventional wisdom is that if President Obama begins governing more from the center after losses in the 2010 elections and gets his approval rating up around 50 percent, Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to challenge him. If Obama’s approval ratings continue to tank, and he looks more like Jimmy Carter than Bill Clinton, there is a good chance Mrs. Clinton will challenge Obama as Ted Kennedy challenged an unpopular Carter in 1980. Kennedy, of course, failed to capture the nomination because Chappaquiddick and other issues got in the way; and Clinton is by no means a shoo-in for the nomination in 2012 regardless of Obama’s poll numbers.

Let’s assume, however, for the sake of argument, that Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination in 2012—without the majority of African-American voters that are unlikely to abandon Obama. Could she assemble a winning coalition in November, and who would be the most difficult Republican to defeat?

Assembling a winning coalition following a divisive intra-party struggle in an environment where the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way Democrats have been governing won’t be easy. Many disaffected Democrats, especially African Americans, are likely to stay home on Election Day. Many Independents who voted for Obama in 2008, suffered buyers remorse, and believe the country has shifted too far to the left are likely to vote Republican.

Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton would give any Republican a run for their money and indeed could win the 2012 election under the right circumstances. She’s an experienced campaigner, she has a deep reservoir of talented Democratic political operatives she can call on, and she knows every trick in the Democrat’s play book.

Much, then, will depend on which Republican Mrs. Clinton is up against. Right now the top four prospects for the Republican nomination are Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling matched them up against Barack Obama in a 2012 race. “He trails Mitt Romney 46-43, Mike Huckabee 47-45, Newt Gingrich 46-45, and is even tied with Sarah Palin at 46 . . .”

What’s noteworthy about this poll is not that three out of four Republicans beat Obama in these hypothetical matchups, but that Sarah Palin tied him. It’s Palin that Democrats and some Republicans have written off as the Republican least likely to win the 2012 election. The results of this and other polls belie that. Increasingly, she’s looking more like a viable candidate. As I wrote back in February, Sarah Palin’s presidential prospects are not as bad as some would lead you to believe—a judgment others now are coming to.

So how would these four Republicans stack up against Hillary Clinton? Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until someone runs a poll to find out. It’s the matchup between Clinton and Palin, however, which would be the most interesting. Not only would we have two women vying to become the first woman President of the United States, making it a foregone conclusion, but, contrary to what many pundits believe, it’s Palin that could be the most difficult for Clinton to defeat.

Clinton’s strategy—or Obama’s for that matter—running against Romney, Gingrich, or Huckabee is to portray them as the same old white-male establishment Republicans the party has been offering up for decades, that they represent the past, not the future, and the failed policies of the George W. Bush administration. In 2008 Obama used that approach effectively against John McCain, and Clinton can use it effectively against them.

Women voters will play an important role in the 2012 with or without a woman on the ballot. Concerns about the economy, healthcare reform, and other pocketbook issues have them very concerned. More so than in past years, it is women that could cast the deciding votes.

Because the majority of women traditionally vote Democratic, that gives Hillary the advantage with women if she’s running against a middle-aged white-male Republican. If Sarah Palin topped the Republican ticket, however, that calculus doesn’t necessarily hold. The ranks of conservative women are growing, they make up a majority of Tea Party supporters, and many Independent and some Democratic women are drawn to Palin.

Past polling on women’s attitudes toward Clinton or Palin doesn’t necessarily predict how they might vote in 2012 if these two women were on the ballot. Voters won’t view Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin through the same lenses they viewed them through in 2008. Liberalism’s excesses and failures during Obama’s first term will have diminished the value of the liberal “Hillary” brand, and the left’s attempt to portray Sarah Palin as dumb and uninformed will have been exposed, as it largely has been already, for what it is—fear of Palin’s appeal.

Two-thousand-twelve is still geological ages away in political terms as the cliché goes, but the possibility of a Clinton-Palin contest is not far fetched. Both women are major political forces in their respective parties, and both have their eyes on the Oval Office. Stranger things have happened in American politics.


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