Hillary Clinton Isn’t Inevitable



By Megan McArdle  |  Apr 15, 2015  |  BLOOMBERG VIEW

Seemingly alone among commentators, I am bearish on Hillary Clinton. Not “she can’t win” bearish, but “something less than a 50 percent chance of winning” bearish. Why is everyone else convinced she’s a lock?

If you believe the “wisdom of crowds” argument, the answer is that I’m wrong and they’re right. And fair enough. But this crowd is composed of mostly left-leaning journalists and academics, so there might be a wee bit of sample bias.

Jonathan Chait has a smart piece in New York magazine on why Clinton is probably going to win. Here’s my bear-side case for why I don’t think she will.

1. She’s old. There, I said it. Hillary Clinton is going to be 69 on Election Day 2016, (very slightly) younger than Ronald Reagan was when he was elected. We can argue that this is not fair, but fair or not, it’s going to matter. Her opponent — any opponent — is going to look young and vigorous next to her. And I suspect that it matters more for a woman than for a man. If you think that discrimination against older workers is real, you have to think this is going to be a factor.

Her age is a risk for another reason: People in their late 60s and early 70s are vulnerable to health events. Now, calm down, I’m not saying that Clinton is likely to die on the trail; I’m sure she has top-notch doctors and her life expectancy is, I am pleased to say, at least another 15 years. But say she has a burst appendix, as happened to my mother at that age; she’ll be off the campaign trail for a minimum of a month. And a burst appendix is only one of the many non-life-threatening things that hit older people harder than the young, from pneumonia to shingles. Obviously, these things could happen to any candidate, but they are more likely to happen to Clinton than to her opponent. And if one does, it will not only hurt her campaigning, but it will also plant questions in voters’ minds about her physical ability to do the job.

There is, of course, a possibility that she could drive turnout among older voters. But I’m sort of skeptical. My mother, aka the Swing Voter, says she knows she would no longer have the physical stamina to be president, and that actually biases her against Clinton. I’ve heard the same from several other 70+ folks.

2. It’s not clear how far she’ll outperform Barack Obama with women. Clinton beat Rick Lazio in 2000 by a shocking percentage among women — 20 points. But that’s in New York state, where there are a lot of unmarried women (married women actually lean Republican). And Obama already carried women 55 to 60 percent in 2012. Realistically, how much higher can she drive that percentage, or turnout among women voters?

Moreover, there are trade-offs: Democrats outperformed among women, but they underperformed among men. Clinton seems to be planning a platform heavy on items designed to appeal to female voters, such as paid family leave. But these actually appeal to a pretty narrow segment of the population — young single women, and those with small children — where Democrats already do really well. There’s the risk that these gain her voters among folks who are already strong Democrats while costing her votes in segments she needs to pick up. Especially since any serious promise of these things is going to have to come with a plan for paying its hefty price tag.

3. I doubt she’ll replicate Obama’s turnout among black voters. Obama brought a lot of black voters to the polls, for the same reasons that Catholic voters, especially Irish Catholics, lined up around the block to vote for Al Smith and John F. Kennedy. The first president from a group that has historically faced discrimination is naturally going to drive higher turnout among that group, but that doesn’t mean they’ll keep turning out in the same numbers (or even for the same party — 20 years after JFK, a lot of Irish Catholics were voting Republican). I expect that blacks will continue to be a strong constituency for Democrats in years to come, but I doubt they will come to the polls for Clinton in the same way they did to vote for the first black president. That means she has to make up those votes elsewhere.

4. The Emerging Democratic Majority is questionable. Chait thinks it still holds; I’m skeptical, mostly because I don’t believe in permanent coalitions. The bigger your coalition, the bigger its internal tensions. Coalitions can collapse suddenly and without warning — who in 1976 would have predicted 1980?

5. There’s a real risk of another recession. The last recession ended in 2009. Yes, the recovery has been unusually anemic, but that’s no guarantee that another recession will wait longer to arrive — FDR ended up with a baby recession in 1937. There are all sorts of reasons we could have another recession: Oil prices could go back up, the Fed could decide it has to start tightening, or, well, any of the other mysterious things that cause recessions could come into play. If there’s another recession after years of meh growth, Clinton is not going to be president. Even if she does get in, odds are high that an ill-timed recession will deny her a second term.

6. She’s not a particularly good candidate. She has never won a tough election. In fact, she’s only won in deep blue New York, which is not exactly playing against the varsity. On the stump, she has nowhere near the appeal of her husband, or Barack Obama. She’s a totally fine speaker, but she is not inspiring, and she does not come off as warm; her tone ranges from “well coached” to “annoyed.” You might call her the Mitt Romney of the Democrats.

7. All the Clinton baggage is going to come back to haunt her. Americans love their presidents … in retrospect. Even George W. Bush is starting to attract some warm, fuzzy feelings for his foray into painting and his admirable determination not to go around trying to conduct shadow policy debates. All the things we hated about the Clintons, from the financial scandals to the pardons, have faded into distant memory. As soon as Hillary Clinton goes on the stump, however, we’ll start having flashbacks. Indeed, with the e-mail mess, they have already started.

8. Unlike fine wine, presidential parties do not age well. There’s evidence that voters get sick of the ruling party after a while and want a change, even if things seem to be doing OK. Now, we don’t have that many elections to go by, as this just covers the postwar period. The theory could be wrong. But it makes a certain amount of sense: The longer a party has been in office, the staler its ideas seem, and the more time there has been for scandals to accumulate. And in Clinton’s case, she comes prepackaged with scandals of her own. It’s just less motivating to turn out for your party’s third presidential term than it was for the first, when your base was fired up and a substantial number of independents were sick of the party in office.

9. Obama’s approval ratings do not make for long coattails. In the last four years of his presidency, Bill Clinton’s approval ratings averaged over 60 percent. Nonetheless, his not-particularly-appealing VP barely fought the election to a statistical draw. Obama, meanwhile, has struggled to break 50 percent. Maybe those ratings are going to shoot up for the last year, but that’s going to take some shooting to get Hillary Clinton into “inevitable” territory.

There’s the bear case. I could be wrong, and we’ll certainly see in a year. But so far, I remain mystified by the certainties about her prospects.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down.”  

(Corrects fourth paragraph in article published April 14 to reflect Hillary Clinton’s actual age on Election Day 2016. She would be younger than Ronald Reagan when he was elected in 1980.)

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at [email protected]

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at [email protected]