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5 reasons Hillary Clinton's weaknesses are greatly exaggerated

Jewel Samad - AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

If you've been reading political coverage lately, you will have learned that Hillary Clinton is currently on a gaffe-laden book tour where she has proven how out of touch she is with ordinary Americans, while Elizabeth Warren is getting a rapturous reception from progressive activists yearning for her candidacy. This is an entertaining narrative, but it's missing a few key facts about what's going on in advance of the Democratic presidential primary right now — facts indicating that Clinton remains the overwhelming favorite.

1) Clinton's lead in polling is much larger than it was in 2008


Yes, Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner in 2008 and then lost the nomination. But back in early 2007, she reached only 30 to 40 percent in polls of Democratic voters — indicating that a majority of Democrats weren't yet on board with a Clinton candidacy. Now, she regularly tops 60 percent in polls, and sometimes even breaks 70 percent, as you can see on RealClearPolitics. In particular, her position in Iowa, where she lost to Obama in 2008, is now enormously stronger, as Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight points out:

With clear majorities of Democrats nationally and in the two major early states already saying they'll back Clinton, it's difficult to see an opportunity for a challenger.

2) Democrats don't actually want a more liberal nominee


The assumption among people who talk to a lot of very progressive activists is that the Democratic base is yearning for a much more liberal nominee. But according to a poll from CNN and ORC International, that's not the case at all.

Only 11 percent of Democrats would prefer a nominee who's more liberal than Clinton — compared to 20 percent who'd like a more conservative nominee. Once again, it's difficult to see the opening for a progressive challenger here.

3) The experience of Obama's presidency has discredited the main anti-Clinton argument


Mandel Ngan, AFP / Getty

In 2008, Obama ran on an inspirational platform of bringing hope and change to America and transcending partisan politics. Of course, this didn't happen. Therefore, any Democratic candidate sounding similar themes in 2016 will face serious skepticism from the party's voters. TNR's Noam Scheiber made this point in a recent article — he found support for Clinton among many progressive activists, and expounded on why in an interview with Vox. "When you pressed further it was about disappointment in President Obama," Scheiber said. "Watching the system not change really made an impact on these people. I don't think they want to get burned again."

4) Inequality is not Iraq

In 2008, Obama and Clinton were quite similar in most policy areas. But he always had one issue on which he could draw a very clear contrast with Clinton — her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. "Most of you know I opposed this war from the start. I thought it was a tragic mistake," Obama said in his February 2007 announcement speech. He continued to emphasize this contrast throughout the primary campaign, and capitalized on serious resentment from party activists against Clinton and other Democratic leaders who had authorized the war.

Some commentators have argued that Clinton could be similarly vulnerable on issues of economic inequality in 2016. But every major figure in the party, including Clinton, now agrees that inequality is a serious concern. The rhetoric Clinton uses on the issue sounds quite a lot like Warren's, as you can see in the video above, and in this video mashup of the two by the Huffington Post. Now, on the narrower issue of banking regulation, there are some serious rhetorical and substantive differences between Clinton and Warren. But there's no real indication that that issue has enough national resonance to dislodge a front-runner — especially considering the above poll results that indicate there's little desire among Democrats for a more liberal candidate.

5) There's no credible challenger who can amass broad party support


Photo: Saul Loeb - AFP / Getty

A recent article by Phil Rucker and Robert Costa of the Washington Post lists many examples of potential Democratic candidates purportedly "making moves" to "position themselves" as an alternative to Clinton. Martin O'Malley has been giving speeches to Democrats all over the country. Amy Klobuchar is visiting Iowa. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Governor Andrew Cuomo are releasing books. Vice President Biden even called some of his former aides, "ostensibly to say hello"!

Yet while all this happens, Clinton has been racking up actual endorsements from Democrats — even though she's not yet running. These include figures who endorsed Obama last time around, like Tim Kaine and Claire McCaskill. Indeed, several of the potential contenders mentioned in the Post article — including Warren — actually signed a private letter urging Clinton to run for president. (Warren has said she hopes Clinton runs and that "Hillary is terrific," but hasn't publicly endorsed so far.)

It's more plausible that the politicians mentioned by the Post are positioning themselves so they can jump in if Clinton doesn't run. It's prudent for them to prepare for that possibility, however small, since the nomination really would be up for grabs, as Amy Walter lays out here. Plus, for the younger potential candidates, building a national network now might help prepare them for 2020 (if Clinton loses) or 2024 elections. But serious challenges to Clinton still seem extremely unlikely — except, perhaps, for the most quixotic of contenders.