Democrats flocked to Minnesota this past weekend for the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting — a largely formulaic event notable largely for the kibitzing and complaining about the presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the speculation about the possible candidacy of Joe Biden.
So, what do we actually know about the state of the Democratic race? Here are six thoughts.
1. Clinton is still the heavy Democratic favorite.
It’s easy to assume, amid her botched handling of the private e-mail server she maintained while at the State Department, to assume that Clinton is in deep trouble in a Democratic primary. There’s just not a ton of evidence that this is true.
There is, has been and will be somewhere between 30 percent and 40 percent of the national Democratic electorate who want to support someone other than Clinton. But there is little evidence of a groundswell against her among rank-and-file Democrats.
2. The Democratic political class is spooked.
A New York Times report that detailed conversations with 75 high-level Democratic operatives and politicians was an absolutely brutal read for Clinton and her campaign last week. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell’s quote — “They’ve handled the e-mail issue poorly, maybe atrociously, certainly horribly” — is just a total gut punch for the Clinton folks.
Although it is easy to dismiss the chatter and worries of Democratic elites as the sort of stuff that happens every four years when the party tries to elect a president, it is a mistake to think it has no influence.
The concerns of the Democratic elites have undoubtedly played a role in encouraging Biden to more actively consider entering the race. It has also forced Clinton to recalibrate her answers on questions about the e-mail server to show that she understands this is a big deal. If the Democratic chattering class continues to see Clinton as a wounded candidate, it could slow down her money and her momentum — such as it is.
3. Bernie Sanders just might win New Hampshire.
Per point No. 1 above, I don’t think the socialist senator from Vermont is going to win the Democratic nomination. But I do think he is a real threat to Clinton in New Hampshire. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polling in the state, Sanders is at 41.7 percent to Clinton’s 38.3 percent.
Now, she will definitely outspend Sanders on TV there, and it’s possible that an Iowa caucus win by Clinton, which still seems likely, could change the dynamic in New Hampshire.
But even if Sanders wins New Hampshire, where does his next victory come from? Given Clinton’s strength among black voters, South Carolina seems a likely win for her. Ditto Nevada, where Clinton’s organizational strength will shine. So, yes, Sanders might win New Hampshire — something previously thought unthinkable. But it’s not clear that will mean as much as you might think.
4. Joe Biden might actually run (and it’s impossible to guess what he will decide).
I was skeptical when I first heard leaks coming out of Bidenworld that he was seriously considering running. The main reason for my skepticism was that he had just lost his eldest son to brain cancer, and it didn’t seem probable to me that the vice president was spending much time doing anything but grieving.
That all changed when Maureen Dowd reported that it had been Beau Biden’s dying wish that his father run for president in 2016. Biden’s consideration of a candidacy, then, is one part strategic calculation about whether he could win and one part tribute to his late son.
Given that, it is incredibly difficult to know what he is thinking. From a practical standpoint, I have written that it doesn’t make a ton of sense for Biden to run — he just can’t differentiate himself enough from Clinton to build a plurality — but I am not sure that practical concerns are what is motivating Biden at the moment.
5. The Clinton people are trying to keep Biden out of the race.
From a quote by Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) about how Biden might make a good secretary of state in a Clinton administration to the touting on Friday of Clinton’s decisive edge among Democratic superdelegates, it’s clear that the Clinton people do not want Biden in the race. That’s smart, because for all the talk about Biden helping to make Clinton a better candidate if he runs, the hard truth is that a candidacy by the vice president complicates Clinton’s path to the nomination. He sits in the same establishment space as she does and, almost by default, would have to make a case that he has more and better experience in office than she does — an argument that goes right to Clinton’s greatest strength in the race.
What’s much less clear to me is whether the “we’ve basically already won this thing” message being pushed by Clinton folks on superdelegates will have any effect on Biden. I could see him taking umbrage at such a heavy-handed approach and the tactic backfiring on Clinton.
6. Clinton has major image problems in a general election.
If Clinton’s continued strength in a Democratic primary is one major story in the race, her weaknesses in a general election are the other. On virtually every question related to her e-mail server, independents — long considered the crucial swing vote in a close presidential election — are closer to Republican views than Democratic ones.
It is very difficult for a politician as well known as Clinton to change broad-scale perceptions about her. And the perception out there is that she has not been entirely forthcoming about why she had a private e-mail server while she was at the State Department. That has led to further erosion in Clinton’s overall “honest and trustworthy” numbers — particularly among independents and in key swing states.
That’s a troubling reality for Democrats hoping to keep the White House in their party’s hands for another four years.