Although general election day remains over a year and a half away, Clinton’s announcement is the clearest sign yet that the US presidential election has already begun. While the Democratic race is already hers to lose, the Republican contest could be the most competitive in a generation.
In the last month, three major Republicans (Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky, Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favourite and senator from Texas, and Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida) announced their intention to run for President. Paul, Cruz, and Rubio could prove strong candidates, but will potentially face a large field of others for the Republican nomination in what is shaping up to be a very fluid race.
Among the other Republican contenders formally exploring the possibility of a run are former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former Presidents George W and George HW Bush respectively; the former governor of Texas Rick Perry; the governors of New Jersey and Wisconsin, Chris Christie and Scott Walker; and businessman Donald Trump. Others who have expressed interest include former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, business executive Carly Fiorina, and US representative Peter King of New York.
The past few decades indicate that the victor in nomination contests for both major parties usually leads national polls of party identifiers on the eve of the first presidential nomination ballot, traditionally in Iowa, and raises more campaign finance than any other candidate in the 12 months prior to election year.
From 1980 to 2012, the eventual nominee in eight of the 14 Democratic and Republican nomination races that were contested (in other words, in which there was more than one candidate) was the early frontrunner on both measures. This was true of George W Bush and Al Gore in 2000; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate in 1996; Bill Clinton in 1992; George HW Bush in 1988 and 1992; Walter Mondale, the Democratic nominee in 1984; and Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate in 1980.
Moreover, in at least three partial exceptions to this pattern, the eventual presidential nominee led the rest of the field on one of the two measures. This was true of Mitt Romney in 2012, Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
In the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, Romney was the leading fundraiser, but sometimes trailed or was tied in national polls of party identifiers to Newt Gingrich immediately prior to the Iowa ballot. In the 1980 Republican nomination contest, Reagan (who ultimately won) led national polls of party identifiers while John Connally was the leading fundraiser.
On both the fundraising and national poll measures, Hillary Clinton will be the strong favourite for the Democrats. So much so that some other potentially first class candidates, including current Vice-President Joe Biden, may decide not to put their hats into the ring.
Indeed, a Reuters/Ipsos poll last month found that 45 per cent of Democrats favour Clinton to win the nomination. While this is a sizeable drop since the controversy began over her email use as secretary of state, she is still significantly ahead of any other candidate.
While Clinton is favourite to win the Democratic nomination, however, she may still face a very tough general election race in 2016 against the eventual Republican nominee. One of the key factors that will influence Republican prospects of defeating her will be whether, and how quickly, the party can unite around its own nominee given the potentially large number of contenders.
A model for Republicans here is the 2000 cycle, when George W Bush emerged strongly from a wide field of contenders before going on to defeat Gore. As Romney found in 2012, however, it may be hard to unify the party in such a decisive way in 2016 unless a clear favourite emerges early.
After two terms of Democrat Obama in the White House, many Republican operatives will be keen to avoid a bruising, introspective and drawn-out contest that exposes significant intraparty division to the national electorate. The last few times such a scenario unfolded, the Republicans lost the general election.
Indeed, Clinton’s husband Bill benefited from this same dynamic in 1992 and went on to win a relatively comfortable victory in that year’s general election. While the circumstances of 2016 will be different from 1992, and 2012 too, another divisive Republican nomination contest would probably only help the Democrats, and potentially be a tipping point in a very tight general election contest.