We’re on record here at The Upshot as believing that Hillary Clinton is in an extremely strong position to win the Democratic nomination. And as Brendan Nyhan has explained, the furor over her private email account is likely to affect far fewer voters than may now appear to be the case.
But what if the unlikely happens, and she is forced to abandon her planned presidential campaign because of a development we can’t now anticipate? In that case, what would the Democratic field for the 2016 nomination look like?
The short answer is: chaos.
Clinton’s dominance has kept other top Democrats from taking the kind of steps that serious presidential candidates have typically taken by now. Additionally, the Democrats’ poor performance in statewide races during the Barack Obama years has left the party with a relatively shallow bench. All of this helps explain the absence of Democratic infighting about the email account.
Without Clinton, there would be no Democratic front-runner. Initially, there would not even be a top tier of candidates on par with the Republicans’ top tier of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and possibly Marco Rubio. (Some Upshot office gossip: I think Rubio can fairly be described as part of the Republican top tier; Nate Cohn does not. As a general rule, you should trust him over me on political analysis.)
Eventually, the Democrats would produce a nominee, even if it were not Clinton. As a thought experiment, we decided to imagine a Democratic race without her. To be clear, we’re not predicting such a race. But we generally don’t believe in putting 100 percent odds on political matters. So here goes:
The First Candidate
Vice President Joe Biden wants to run for president. He wants to run as a populist defender of the middle class — a native son of Scranton, Penn. — and the heir to Obama.
He has some obvious strengths. Many Democrats feel genuine affection for him. Obama seems to be among them and could feel some pressure to support his No. 2. If the economy continues to gather steam, Biden could also promise more of the same on policy grounds. And Biden could easily run a campaign that emphasized his stylistic differences with his boss, including his long experience in Washington and his decidedly un-egghead-like persona. Americans tend to prefer their presidents to be different from their immediate predecessors.
But he would hardly clear the field. Many Democratic operatives have a hard time seeing him as the nominee even without Clinton. Remember that he’s run for president twice before, with miserable results. In 1987, he withdrew months before the first primary. In 2008, he received less than 1 percent of vote in the Iowa caucuses — less than half as much as Bill Richardson.
This time, he would have the chance to become the oldest president to be inaugurated for the first time by more than 4 years. He will be 74 in January 2017. Ronald Reagan was just shy of his 70th birthday when he took office in 1981.
The Former Nominees
In today’s media-saturated environment, losing nominees have a hard time running again. Voters have spent months learning about them — and tend to remember them, fairly or not, as presidential losers. Nearly a half-century has passed since a defeated general-election candidate (Richard Nixon, who lost in 1960) recovered to win his party’s nomination again (Nixon, in 1968).
But because a Democratic race without Clinton would not be an ordinary race, it’s worth considering some extraordinary possibilities.
The Democrats happen to have two former nominees who have remained very active in public life. John Kerry, the secretary of state, went so far as to consider running again in 2008, just four years after losing to President George W. Bush. Al Gore, meanwhile, has won a Nobel Prize and an Emmy Award and also starred in an Oscar-winning movie since leaving the vice presidency — all for his climate activism, which would play well with Democratic primary voters.
Both men have their strengths. They’re seen as broad-minded policy thinkers whom Democrats wistfully wish had beaten Bush. On the other hand, they’re also seen as relatively stiff candidates whose lack of an everyman’s touch helped them lose to Bush.
Kerry would be 73 on inauguration day in 2017, nearly as old as Biden. Gore would be only 68 — but also seems less interested in presidential politics these days.
The Liberal Hero
Without Clinton in the race, Elizabeth Warren would seem much more likely to run. She would have a chance to consolidate the liberal part of the party while other candidates were fighting over the more centrist establishment.
Historically, liberal candidates have failed to win the nomination, partly because of the overlooked role that conservative states play in selecting a nominee. Warren would have to hope that she could prevail for one of two reasons: Either the more moderate primary voters would remain splintered long enough for her to establish a large delegate lead; or the rise in inequality and public dissatisfaction in recent years would move the Democratic primary electorate to the left, allowing a liberal candidate to win. (Of course, liberals have long been predicting such a development, to no avail.)
Before anyone assumes she would be the favorite, it’s worth keeping in mind that her electoral record is still thin — and leaves room for questions. She ran 7 percentage points behind Obama in Massachusetts when she won her Senate seat in 2012. But she would immediately become the most-watched Democrat in the absence of Clinton.
Four of the past six presidents have been former governors. They are able to run campaigns emphasizing their executive accomplishments and promising to change Washington, even if they don’t actually do so.
But the Democrats have a distinct weakness in trying to find a governor to be their nominee in 2016: The party currently holds only 18 of the nation’s 50 governorships. None of those 18 seem in a good position to win the nomination.
Andrew Cuomo of New York inspires little excitement among most Democrats and is to the right of many of them. John Hickenlooper of Colorado would never have been a typical candidate — and he won re-election last year with just 49 percent of the vote. Jerry Brown of California makes Biden and Kerry look young and inexperienced. Jack Markell of Delaware has a solid policy record but little name recognition or political base.
Then there are the former governors, who may be stronger. Martin O’Malley of Maryland is making noises about taking on Clinton and also has a serious policy record. But he has to contend with the fact that his handpicked successor lost in one of the nation’s bluest states. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is another two-term governor of a blue state who failed to persuade voters to elect a Democrat to succeed him. Brian Schweitzer of Montana would need to emphasize his populist economic policies over his conservative stance on some other issues to have a chance.
The Senators (Who Aren’t Named Elizabeth Warren)
The Senate has the deepest bench of younger Democrats — those who could plausibly hope to be the next nominee, after Clinton. Without her in the race, several would be tempted to join it, in hopes of winning or merely strengthening their position for the future.
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York both occupy ground near the center of the party. Either could make history as the first female nominee — and many Democratic voters seem eager to co-educate the presidency.
Michael Bennet of Colorado, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chris Murphy of Connecticut could run as fresh faces. Mark Warner (who explored a run in 2008) and Tim Kaine, both of Virginia, could point to their experience as governors and their success at winning in a purple state. Dick Meyer, the chief Washington correspondent for Scripps, recently called Kaine the most likely non-Clinton nominee.
If Warren did not run, Sherrod Brown of Ohio could try to claim the populist mantle. And might Al Franken of Minnesota be tempted to make a run? He wouldn’t be the first former entertainer.
Two candidates who would still have virtually no chance are Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jim Webb, the former Virginia senator. They both may run, even with Clinton in the race.
Every Democrat nominee since John W. Davis in 1924 (who received 29 percent of the vote) had been a senator or governor. But history isn’t destiny, and several other Democrats could be tempted to get into the race.
Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, would first need to win his re-election and then come up with a strategy to win over some of the liberals who view him skeptically. Julian Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who is seen as a rising star, remains very young (40).
You could also imagine a Democrat running mostly to raise the profile of a single issue. Could Tom Steyer bring more attention to climate change by running himself rather than by backing other candidates? What about a candidate who tries to give voice to the growing number of Latinos, as Jesse Jackson did for African-Americans in the 1980s?
Ultimately, the relative strength of these potential candidates will probably matter more in the years beyond 2016. If Clinton wins the nomination, as expected, the party will need another nominee in either 2020 (if she loses the general election) or 2024 (if she wins).
The older people on this list — Kerry, Biden, Gore — will be out of the running by then. And some of the potential candidates who now seem green will be less so.
All of which underscores the importance of Clinton’s choices for her vice-presidential nominee. After her, the party is lacking obvious heirs apparent. In all likelihood, she will have the ability to choose the initial leader of the party’s next generation.