I like Hilary Clinton. Back in 2008, when the nomination for the Democratic candidate for president seemed to be a toss-up between her and Barack Obama, I remember thinking that I liked them both, and would have no problems voting for either one of them. (In the end, in the primaries, I voted for Obama on the basis of a few of his campaign speeches.)
Irrespective of how my personal vote went five years ago in the primaries, I thought then — and still think — that she’d make a good president.
But the more I think about it, if she gets the Democratic nomination in 2016, the odds of her actually winning the presidency in November against whomever the Republicans decide to nominate, are not good and that history would not be on her side. I have a couple of reasons for saying this, so take this to mean whatever you want it to mean:
1. Her age. The election will be just over a week after her 69th birthday, and thus would make her the second oldest president in history to take the oath of office for the first time. (Only younger than Ronald Reagan.) Whatever you might think about Reagan personally or politically, it can’t be denied that Reagan’s age certainly cost him votes in 1980, and it had the potential to cost him the entire election. Hilary will not have the benefit of running against an incumbent president who was perceived as ineffectual. Furthermore, although there have been many instances where a newly elected president was older than the preceding president, the age difference between Hilary and Barack Obama would be the greatest age difference in history. You can pretty much guarantee that whoever the GOP nominates to run against her would make age an issue for her.
2. The track record of the Democratic Party. The Republican Party, for whatever it’s worth, tends to nominate candidates with wide name recognition, often rewarding the runner-up from an earlier set of primaries as their candidate each time around. (Mitt Romney was the nominee in 2012 and runner up in 2008. John McCain was the nominee in 2008 and was the runner up in 2000. George W Bush, the nominee from 2000 had name recognition from his father, and so on… We can actually go back to the 1952 election — if not further — and find that the Republican nominee had some serious name recognition from long before they ever declared an interest in being president. And their track record hasn’t been bad. (It’s not perfect, but it hasn’t been bad…)
The democrats, on the other hand, have fared much better when the candidate didn’t have widespread name recognition. The last non-incumbent president with widespread name recognition who was nominated by the Democrats and who would go on to win the general election, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. (He was the democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 1920, plus he had name recognition from his cousin, Theodore Roosevelt). But let’s look at the non-incumbents since then:
1960 — John F Kennedy. Any name recognition he might have had before he sought the nomination would have been through political junkies and maybe the clout of his father, Joseph P Kennedy. There’s a famous scene in the movie Back to the Future, when Michael J. Fox has traveled back in time to 1955 — a mere five years before Kennedy was elected — and gets confused over directions to get somewhere, because a street in question had been renamed after John F Kennedy. His grandfather says “Who the hell’s John F Kennedy?” Not an uncommon sentiment in the mid 50’s.
1968 — Hubert Humphrey. Gained name recognition in the 1948 Democratic National Convention and was chosen as the vice president under LBJ after Kennedy’s assassination. Lost the election.
1972 — George McGovern. The first person in congress to argue that maybe our involvement in Vietnam wasn’t a good idea. Sought the nomination in 1968, didn’t get it, but got it in ’72. Lost the election.
1976 — Jimmy Carter. His name might’ve been known to political junkies, but beyond that, I don’t think anyone knew who he was until he got the democratic nomination this year. And he won the election.
1984 — Walter Mondale. Well known because he was vice president under Carter. Lost the election.
1988 — Michael Dukakis. Not exceptionally well-known before he got the nomination but better known than Carter because he was (1) the longest serving governor of Massachusetts, and (2) recognized because of the way he handled an weather emergency in his state. (Also not to be discounted is the fact that he had chosen the well-known Vietnam Veteran who would be an outspoken critic of the war, John Kerry, as his lieutenant governor.) Lost the election.
1992 — Bill Clinton. If anyone outside of the state of Arkansas knew his name before he announced that he’d seek the democratic nomination for president in 1992, it was because he gave a lengthy speech nominating Michael Dukakis four years earlier. Won the election.
2000 — Al Gore. Very well known senator who had been vice president under Bill Clinton. Had name recognition since his wife started campaigning against explicit rock lyrics in the 80’s and even sought the nomination in 1988. Lost the election.
2004 — John Kerry. Very well-known. (See my comments on Michael Dukakis above). Lost the election.
2008 — Barack Obama. Prior to his 2004 election to the US Senate he was a state senator in Illinois. He gained name recognition with a rousing speech during the 2004 democratic convention. Won the election.
It seems pretty clear to me that the democrats tend to find more success in presidential elections when their nominee isn’t very well-known, at least since FDR. The best known victor in that time period is JFK, and the least-known loser, is Dukakis.
Hilary would undoubtedly be the best-known nominee for the Democrats in a long time, should she actually gain the nomination. (Possibly since FDR). For the democratic party, that’s not a good thing.
So if not Hilary, who within the democratic party might fare better in the general election? I can think of a few names right now (me being the political junkie that I am…) The first names that come to mind are Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren.