Somehow, six years after a divisive, bitter primary against a liberal challenger, Hillary Clinton has become the darling of the Democratic left. To liberal Democrats, she’s more “tough,” “honest,” and exciting than any other figure in the party. As Noam Scheiber writes in an excellent feature on Clinton and the left for the New Republic, “it’s a striking turnaround for a candidate who, when her opponent famously proclaimed her ‘likeable enough’ in 2008, discovered that less than half her party agreed.”
For Scheiber—who pegs the change to partisan solidarity—liberal support is key to Clinton’s presidential ambitions, if she runs. Without dissatisfied liberals to fuel an anti-Clinton insurgency, he argues, the former secretary of state has an easy path to the nomination, even with her liabilities on income inequality and her close relationship to Wall Street and other titans of the 1 percent. “What’s so unusual about Clinton’s standing is that, unlike 2008, it’s almost certain to hold up even against a perfectly positioned challenger—say, Elizabeth Warren, the most beloved economic populist in the country,” writes Scheiber.
At the risk of nitpicking, I think it’s wrong to call Warren “perfectly positioned.” Not because she isn’t talented and popular, but because liberals—or at least, self-identified liberals—aren’t enough to win a Democratic primary.
Key to Scheiber’s case is the idea that liberals killed the Clinton candidacy of 2008 and could do the same in 2016 if they backed Warren or another credible challenger. But while liberals were a necessary part of the Obama insurgency, they weren’t sufficient to stop the Clinton machine. To wit, self-identified liberals were just 39 percent of all Democrats in 2008, followed by moderates (38 percent) and conservatives (21 percent). Or you could just look at Clinton’s record in the primary, where liberal opposition couldn’t block her victories in New Hampshire, California, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Massachusetts, and Arizona.
Clinton’s problem had less to do with liberals and more with blacks, who formed a critical share of the Democratic primary electorate. Scheiber points to this in a footnote, but it’s worth a full take. Put simply, a Democratic presidential candidate can’t win the primary without substantial support from black voters, who tend to vote for the establishment choice. Accordingly, it’s when black Americans back a challenger that the establishment candidate falters, which is to say that if Hillary Clinton had kept a decent share of the black vote, she would have become the Democratic nominee, regardless of liberal disdain for her candidacy.
To see this, you just have to look at the numbers. As the year wore on, Barack Obama was winning black electorates by huge margins of 8– or 9–to–1 in delegate-rich states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Georgia. In states where Clinton was weak, like Illinois, this gave Obama a huge victory outright, with an abundance of votes and delegates heading to the convention. And in states where she was strong, like Pennsylvania, this allowed Obama to play a close game and win a respectable number of votes. As political scientist Tom Schaller noted toward the end of the primary season, “Clinton squeezed out the same number of net delegates from her 17-point win in New York and 9-point win in Pennsylvania as Obama did in his 31-point win in Illinois—even though New York and Pennsylvania combined … awarded nearly two and half times the delegates that Illinois did.” And while a modest increase in Clinton’s black support—from 10 or 15 percent to 20 or 25 percent—may not have been sufficient to win her a delegate lead, as Schaller later points out, it could have swung the popular vote in her favor.
I can imagine the objection. Obama was viable and black. Clinton didn’t stand a chance with blacks. But that’s a bit of revisionist history. Remember, for all of 2007, Clinton held the lead with black voters. In one August poll by the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of black Democrats held a favorable view of Clinton, compared with 88 percent for Obama. In the same poll, 47 percent supported her candidacy, compared with 34 percent for Obama. Likewise, an October CNN poll found that Clinton was supported by 57 percent of black Democrats, versus 33 percent for Obama. And toward the end of the year, Clinton continued to hold a favorability advantage, with favorable ratings from 83 percent of blacks, versus 74 percent for Obama.
Obama’s huge black support only came after his first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, where he proved himself a strong candidate with broad appeal. And once it did, he quickly became a credible candidate in a way that escaped similar liberal challengers, like Howard Dean in 2004 or Bill Bradley in 2000, who couldn’t build the same foothold. What’s more, he was helped along by the Clinton campaign’s missteps with black voters—from Bill’s “fairy tale” description of Obama’s chances to her argument that she was a better candidate to win “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”
Absent Clinton’s tactical and rhetorical mistakes, she could have held on to a substantial chunk of the black vote, denying Obama the lopsided margins he needed to win—even if he held the majority of liberal support.
Which brings us back to the present. Yes, Hillary Clinton benefits from her new popularity with liberals, but her strength comes from her position with black voters, who seem committed to a Clinton candidacy. And as long as that’s true, Hillary Clinton can’t lose the 2016 Democratic primary, period.