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What If Hillary Clinton Doesn't Run?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks to the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans on Jan. 27.
Gerald Herbert
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks to the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans on Jan. 27.

The groundwork being laid for a Hillary Clinton presidential run in 2016 overlooks a single, almost unthinkable scenario: What if she doesn't run?

After all, while that might sound like heresy to the various Democratic groups now raising money, locking down political talent and generally acting as a campaign-in-waiting on her behalf, it's not certain she will run.

A year can be a long time in politics. By the time Clinton would have to make her intentions known late this year or early next, she may decide to go from "inevitable" to "never mind" for personal reasons, despite the immense pressures to run.

A "no" from Clinton would leave a vacuum that would be hard to fill.

"I think the first thing is, if she decides not to run, there'll be a whole bunch of people who will be unemployed," said Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan, who attended a recent Ready for Hillary event in Des Moines organized by some of those very same people.

"But there are obviously other people out there. You know, the vice president has been out a number of times, the vice president's well liked here," he said of Vice President Biden. "We've had Gov. [Martin] O'Malley [of Maryland]. He's been out to a number of events. Amy Klobuchar [the senator from neighboring Minnesota] has done some events in Iowa. I think we've got a pretty strong bench."

A "strong bench" is in the eye of the beholder, of course. When asked about the field of potential Democratic candidates, Ann Selzer, a prominent Iowa-based pollster, jokingly retorted: "What field?" In other words, the Clinton juggernaut is so vast right now, she practically is the field.

If Clinton doesn't run, Selzer believes Iowans would do what they always do: road-test a relatively unknown candidate and provide momentum coming out of the state.

"Iowans are used to looking at people that nobody thinks has a chance," she said. "People will step forward. The void will be filled by candidates who say 'This is my shot.' Iowans are going to look at them with an open mind, typically, to say 'OK, can you organize? Do you have what it takes? So, I don't think Iowans are going to be caught flat-footed."

Clinton's giant 2016 footprint is an anomaly for her party, an instance where Democrats are more closely resembling Republicans, who often have as front-runner the party leader who's next in the batting order.

"My party's the one that always likes franchise candidates," said Patrick Griffin, a Republican political strategist and partner at Purple Strategies New England. "We like our Doles, we like our Bushes, we like our McCains. We like our Romneys. What we do is we pick the guy whose turn it is. We beat him up for two years, and then we nominate him.

"Democrats don't do that. Traditionally Democrats have more interesting primaries because they find unique talent. Who would have ever thought that an obscure governor from Arkansas would be president of the United States?"

Or for that matter, Griffin added, a young African-American senator who had yet to finish his first term? "So the Democrats do have very interesting benches and tend to get distracted by shiny metal objects," he said.

That Democratic tendency to go for freshness or novelty could help boost the candidacy of someone like O'Malley, a governor who's relatively unknown nationally, if Clinton decides she'd rather remain a private citizen.

In a Clinton-less presidential race, Democrats will find themselves with one big advantage and one big disadvantage, said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic political strategist who was Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign spokesman. He knows the dynamics of presidential primary races well, having done political work in New Hampshire.

The advantage will be that the emerging electorate of young voters, nonwhite voters and female voters more closely aligns with the Democratic Party than with Republicans on many issues, said Hattaway.

The disadvantage is that voters may decide that eight years is enough time for one party to control the White House.

What's less clear is where voters who were excited about Obama in 2008 will land as they attempt to try to recapture that feeling, Hattaway said.

"All that energy goes far and wide towards looking for a dynamic candidate who inspires the emerging electorate with a fresh vision for the future and shows that they know how to get things done," Hattaway said. "You cannot overstate the depth and breadth and fervor of interest in a Hillary Clinton presidency. It's very broad and it's very deep. People are very excited about the prospect within the party."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.