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A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik

With Hillary in, Warren and others drop off our Democratic nomination rankings

The least shocking announcement since… well… Rand Paul’s presidential launch last week is now in the books: Hillary Clinton is running for president.

The perfunctory announcement came Sunday afternoon via a roughly 2.5-minute video, which is clearly targeted at key Democratic constituencies, like women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and labor. Clinton herself doesn’t appear until after the video’s halfway point, and she doesn’t interact with any of the others in the video.

As she launches what is likely to be a frontrunning and cautious primary campaign, there is no denying that Hillary Clinton is one of the most durable political figures in American history. Immersed in politics since the early 1970s, she has been a universally recognized national figure since 1992. Whether elected president or not, Clinton is guaranteed top billing through 2016 -- her 24th consecutive year in the headlines.

Think back over the years since 1900. Few presidential-level politicians are in her category: Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Should she make it to the White House, Clinton will have longevity surpassing every one of these other luminaries. (Notice that six of the nine became president, and three failed.)

There are obviously advantages and disadvantages to this status. Here’s a two-sided example. Much of her image is set in concrete. Attempts to radically redefine her are doomed; we all think we know her virtues and vices. On the other hand, attacks on Clinton that do not fit the decades-long narrative of her persona will likely fall flat.

The ultimate challenge for Clinton is to be associated more with the future than the past. Frequent references to her new granddaughter won’t be nearly enough. Of course, the same will be true for Jeb Bush, should he end up as her Republican opponent. (A re-run of 1992 fills many, maybe most, people with dread. Perhaps there will be a new Ross Perot, too.)

There’s plenty of time to assess Clinton’s general election chances. For now, let’s focus on her nomination odds. Despite the secret-email controversy, she’s in good shape at the starting gate.

While the Clinton announcement surprises no one, the fact that she now is officially a candidate puts to rest the occasional whispers that she might have decided against a run for health or family reasons. It also allows us to freshen up our rankings of the Democratic presidential contenders, which included several potential candidates who appeared as though they would only run if the favored Clinton took a surprising pass on the race.

Comparisons to 2008, when Clinton lost as the frontrunner, are off-base. Not only does the current field of challengers lack a political prospect nearly of the caliber that Barack Obama was in 2007, but it is also missing even someone like John Edwards, who while disgraced now was a very credible candidate at this time eight years ago, having served as John Kerry’s VP running mate in 2004.

The former secretary of state’s poll numbers and standing in the Democratic Party are more imposing than they were eight years ago. According to the RealClearPolitics average, Clinton had the support of 35.8% of Democrats on April 12, 2007, exactly eight years before her announcement on Sunday. She led the field, but she spent the first half of 2007 hovering in the mid-to-high 30s before moving into the mid-to-high 40s at times in the fall. Her Iowa lead was always less definitive, and she ended up finishing behind both Obama and Edwards in the caucuses.

As of right now, she holds a much larger lead amongst Democrats nationally: 59.8% in the RealClearPolitics average. That’s not quite as good as she did in surveys last year, but it’s still a commanding edge.

And here’s the kicker: Of all the national Democratic presidential primary polls conducted since the start of last year included in the RealClearPolitics database, her lowest level of support was 54%.

In RealClearPolitics’ archive of polls from the 2008 cycle, Clinton’s best poll showed her at 53%.

In other words: Clinton’s worst national poll since the start of last year is still better than her best poll during the 2008 cycle.

Her current edge is even more striking when one considers that Clinton’s closest competitors are Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Vice President Joe Biden, who only register in the low double digits. Clinton’s polling in Iowa is also light years better now than it was eight years ago -- the frontrunner lagged in surveys there, often not even cracking 30% against Obama and Edwards. She’s over 60% in the HuffPost Pollster average now, though there aren’t many recent surveys. Ultimately, the early-state polls are much more important than the national ones: If Clinton starts to weaken, her problems will pop up in the state-level surveys first.

Clinton’s official announcement allows us to trim our list of potential Democratic candidates significantly. Exiting are Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Amy Klobuchar (MN). In a Clinton-less field, they could have been strong contenders, but so long as Clinton stays in the race, Gillibrand and Klobuchar won’t be candidates. The same is true of Secretary of State John Kerry. The 2004 Democratic nominee was another Clinton backstop.

Perhaps most controversially, we’re removing Warren from our list too. Could she change her mind and go back on her many denials and enter the race against Clinton? Sure. But for now we’re going to take her at her word that she will not be a candidate.

That leaves us with a very top-heavy Democratic field. Clinton is unquestionably the only first-tier candidate, and we’re leaving the second tier empty as a nod to her dominant standing in the party.

Lurking in the third tier are four Democrats who at least appear to be seriously considering the race. It’s not a mighty list, but there are credible politicians on it. Leading the group is former Gov. Martin O’Malley (MD), who seems to be seriously preparing for a run and is showing signs he’d be willing to take on Clinton vigorously. Clinton is a powerful force, but the door is not completely shut to any challenger. If someone is to exploit Clinton’s weaknesses, he or she is going to have to be aggressive about it. Playing nice in order to angle for a VP slot or Cabinet appointment isn’t going to cut it.

Former Sen. Jim Webb (VA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) also will not be shy about mixing it up with Clinton if they run.

Surprisingly, another Democratic contender has emerged: former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (RI). We actually hosted Chafee at the University of Virginia last year as he was finishing up his single term as governor -- he is a former Rockefeller Republican senator who lost his Senate seat in the 2006 Democratic wave. He won the governorship as an independent in 2010, then became a Democrat during his term, and finally opted against running for a second term in light of poor approval ratings. To us, Chafee seemed contentedly finished with the political game, but as we’ve seen many times, the “Fever” can spike again.

To his credit, Chafee seems like he’s ready for a scrap, immediately highlighting his vote against the Iraq war in 2002 to contrast himself with Clinton. The former New York senator’s support of the war was a major reason why she lost in 2008.

Finally, we’re keeping Vice President Biden on the list as a wild card. We don’t expect him to run, but this is his last rodeo, and we would not be completely shocked if he saddled up for one last bronco ride. He’s a more serious contender than any of the others on the list besides Clinton, though as noted above he does not poll very well and does not seem to be taken seriously as a presidential contender by many in the press and in his own party.

If you’re a candidate, you won’t be easily convinced that running unopposed is a bad thing. Still, we think Clinton -- and the Democratic Party as a whole -- would benefit from a primary contest. If nothing else, Clinton needs to shake off her rust, and the airing of thorny issues like the e-mails from her tenure at the State Department will potentially do less damage if they are litigated in the press and on the trail this year as opposed to next.

Of course, we’re not a disinterested party. We follow elections for a living. So our indisputable bias is for competition.

Table 1: Crystal Ball 2016 Democratic presidential rankings

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Very popular within party, more so than in ’08
•Pro-Iraq War vote fading in importance
•Woman: chance to make history
•Dominant position scaring off other top Democrats
•Age (69 by Election Day ’16)
•Ran unfocused, too-many-cooks ‘08 campaign; could make similar mistakes in ’16
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
•Scandals already emerging
•What policy rationale is there for a new Clinton presidency?
Second Tier: Nobody
EMPTY — Clinton stands apart
Third Tier: The Others
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements
•Starting to show willingness to mix it up with Clinton
•Baltimore baggage
•Chosen successor lost Maryland governorship
•Nationally unknown
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Unique populist niche
•Strong military background with Democratic views
•Not liberal enough
•Not the best stump speaker
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Left loves him
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Not actually a Democrat
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
Lincoln Chafee
•Voted against Iraq war
•Willingness to attack Clinton
•Never elected as a Democrat
•Left office very unpopular
•No base of support in party, nationally unknown
The Wild Card
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•VP bully pulpit
•Age (73 by Election Day ’16)
•Gaffe machine
•Poor presidential campaign history

List changes

Additions: Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (RI)

Subtractions: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY); Secretary of State John Kerry (MA)

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik

See Other Political Commentary

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