Democrats need Clinton to win resoundingly or not at all. The reasons are many but boil down to one: their current near-term advantage pales in comparison to the longer-term threat from a Hillary presidency. While each party always wants to win big in a presidential race, this one’s particular circumstances mean Democrats need to.
With Hillary Clinton now consistently leading in a race against a political neophyte who threatens to split the Republicans, Democrats can understandably feel good about November. The problem is that good is not good enough when facing the three factors — a weak presidency, full responsibility, and historically heavy midterm losses — that will prevail if Clinton wins. If Democrats do not rack up huge gains now, it will be hard to weather the storm follows a Clinton victory.
First, imagine Clinton wins in November with the margins polls now show. This will mean that Hillary has been unable to shake the extraordinarily high unfavorable ratings she now has. Effectively, Clinton would be taking office with ratings most presidents do not reach until they are about to leave office.
Last month, Gallup polling found Clinton with just a 41 percent favorable and 53 percent unfavorable rating. According to Gallup’s historical ratings, Clinton’s current ratings are well behind recent presidents’ at this stage.
In June 2008, Obama stood at 64-31 percent. In June 2000, Bush averaged 62-30 percent. Even in her husband’s troubled run, Bill Clinton had a 45-43 percent advantage in 1992.
These presidents did not approach Hillary’s already low favorability ratings until well in their second terms — Obama in November 2014, Bush in April 2006, and Bill Clinton in August 2000.
Clinton’s low support lies not just in the general public, but with her party’s left. This group, who supported Senator Sanders all the way through the Democratic nomination fight, will be critical to Clinton’s ability to govern given her limited general support. It is also where a challenge to Clinton’s renomination will come four years later — just as Ted Kennedy did to Carter in 1976.
Second, understand the policy problems Clinton will face. Obama will leave her with a host of foreign and domestic problems. Running the gamut — most notably decreasing economic projections and increasing terrorism fears — any president’s hands would be immediately full, but particularly Clinton’s.
While Obama will leave many problems behind, he will take with him his ready excuse of blaming George W. Bush for them. Clinton will face Obama’s problems but without his advantage. Clinton will also be particularly constricted in how she deals with Obama’s legacy regarding them — again, her weak level of general support and her dependence on the left will be especially constricting for her.
Nor is policy simply policy, it is politics. Clinton will find the left’s strong pressure on every issue she faces. Yet it has been leftward moves — notably in health care, which Hillary Clinton presided over in her husband’s administration — in their first two years in office that have cost both Bill Clinton and Obama dearly in their first midterm elections.
Unlike her two Democratic predecessors, Hillary Clinton will likely have far less political capital in the bank when she hits her first midterm. Yet, Bill Clinton and Obama both lost Democratic control of Congress in their first midterm election — Bill Clinton losing both the House (54 seats) and Senate (9 seats) and Obama losing the House 64 seats) and barely retaining the Senate (losing 7 seats).
Again, Hillary Clinton’s position will be worse than theirs. To get to the Democratic Congressional majorities Bill Clinton had when he took office, Democrats would have to win an incredible 11 Senate seats and 71 House seats. To reach Obama’s inaugural levels, Hillary would need Democrats to win 14 Senate seats and 69 House seats. Neither of these appear likely to ride in on Hillary’s coattails.
To make matters worse for Hillary and Democrats, they will have to be defending 25 Senate seats in 2018, while Republicans will be defending just 8.
Because the 2016 race has already been so unusual, it is easy to focus on the bizarre, rather than the broader context.
Succinctly, Hillary Clinton could enter the White House as an unpopular president overly dependent on the left, the policies of which have cost both her Democratic predecessors and her party massive Congressional losses in their first midterm elections. Against these sizable threats, Clinton lacks her Democratic predecessors’ broad personal popularity and their large Congressional majorities. Finally, she would have neither’s advantage of blaming a presidential predecessor named Bush for the problems she faces in office.
Despite sounding like a worst case scenario, it is important to consider how little these elements are likely to change.
Hillary Clinton’s high unpopularity has been forged over a quarter of a century of high national exposure. It is unlikely to improve substantially over the next four months. She is in a tight race against a political novice, after having been taken the distance by a Democratic challenger she should have quickly dispatched. While her general election opponent could do something to make this election less of a contest, it is hard to see from Clinton’s presidential past how she could.
As recent events at home and abroad demonstrate, the problems she would face in office show no sign of diminishing. Nor would the left’s demands on her. There is also little current indication that she will have anything like her Democratic predecessors’ Congressional majorities — rather the question is still moot whether she would have any at all — while still facing an ominous first midterm election.
It is understandable that Hillary Clinton and her campaign are simply looking to cross November’s finish line first. It is equally understandable that many in her party are already beginning to look at what lies beyond it.
J.T. Young author served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.