WASHINGTON, March 11, 2015 — Is Hillary Clinton in trouble?
Her use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state has gone from an embarrassment to a full-blown controversy. Clinton followed seven days of silence on the topic (save for a single Tweet) with a dumpster fire of a press conference that only served to keep the issue alive.
The whole thing will most likely blow over, but the whispers have started: Will Hillary Clinton be the Democrats’ nominee for president in 2016 after all? And who else is there for Democrats to support?
Here are five ways it might play out:
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
How it could happen: The Massachusetts senator has become the de facto alternative to Clinton. Her public criticisms of the business community and financial industry have made her a darling of the more left-leaning Democrat primary voters. Warren can win the nomination with a cadre of energetic, ideologically-driven campaign operatives who can organize well enough to help her win, especially in the caucus states like Iowa.
Why it wouldn’t: Warren’s path to victory sounds a lot like the path followed by another first-term senator. But Warren can’t match President Barack Obama’s charisma and oratory skills. Obama enjoyed an appeal broader than his ideology in 2008 and backed it up with a smart campaign organization. Warren would have trouble matching that formula.
Vice President Joe Biden
How it could happen: Biden’s travel schedule has taken him to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, ostensibly with the mission of advancing the president’s agenda. These are meaningful locations, though, and it has given him the chance to connect with former supporters and local leaders who could help boost his delegate counts in critical early contests. Quietly, Biden could amass a base of support to trump his buffoonish image.
Why it wouldn’t: Unless he lines up enough support to clear the field, there will be debates where Biden must speak off-the-cuff. Late-night television writers must be salivating at the thought. Democratic voters will have to think long and hard about whether Biden is the best person to carry their banner.
Also, it will be difficult for Democrat allies to recycle the “War on Women” line of attack on the eventual Republican nominee with Biden as the alternative.
How it could happen: As a former two-term governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley has enough of a track record of electoral success and executive experience to offer some credibility. Still, his best hope would be to use strong early finishes to establish viability, and then hope that Clinton is dogged by an endless cascade of scandals, that Biden says something especially incendiary and Warren stays home.
Why it wouldn’t: O’Malley is currently just a tick above former senators James Webb and Bernie Sanders on the depth chart because of his experience and electoral success. He starts off as a very long shot who needs the stars to align just so for his pathway to open up. It is not impossible, but it is exceedingly unlikely. He would have trouble raising enough money to stick around in second or third place long enough to be a back-up option if top-tier candidates falter.
How it could happen: Don’t laugh yet. The former vice president has generated subtle buzz for a while as a 2016 contender. He has previously run what many Democratic primary voters consider a winning presidential campaign. Most importantly, despite his roots in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, he has been a recognized thought leader on climate change, a key issue for many left-leaning voters.
Why it wouldn’t: Gore has been out of the game for a decade and a half, and in that time his most prominent projects have been very lucrative media ventures. Does an older, richer Al Gore even want to trudge across New Hampshire ducking into diners and holding town hall meetings? If he does run, this suggests a campaign focused heavily on paid media but light on the grassroots retail politics so critical for victory in early primaries.
How it could happen: Polls suggest this remains the most likely scenario, by a long shot. It has been a bad two weeks for Clinton, but there’s still a long way to go before New Hampshire and Iowa. Clinton has been running for President for almost a decade and has a formidable organization built. When the initial storm around her e-mail dies down, she will have a chance to dismiss the fracas—and anything else that comes out between now and January 2016—as another example of Republicans’ irrational hatred of her, solidifying the Democratic base.
Why it wouldn’t: The email scandal might not sink Clinton, but what’s next? Hillary Clinton has been at the center of scandals since TravelGate in 1993. While each one could be reasoned away by Democrats in a vacuum, eventually the pattern creates a reputation. Coupled with the fact that Clinton’s ascendency to the nomination has been in the works for so long, there may be Clinton fatigue lying beneath the surface of her strong poll performance. The right candidate could bring that to the surface and capitalize on it.
The trick, of course, is finding the right candidate. The previous two Republican cycles were littered with failed campaigns who hoped to capitalize on “Anybody but Mitt Romney” or “Anybody but John McCain” sentiments. Hillary Clinton’s negatives might open a door, but they won’t by themselves fuel a successful opposition.