‘Hillary Loses’ Scenario Demonstrates Why She Wins

A Republican political consultant says Hillary Clinton is in danger of losing the nomination.


A Republican political consultant argues that Hillary Clinton is too conservative to win the Democratic nomination.  Writing in The Daily Beast, Stuart Stevens explains “This Is How Hillary Loses the Primary.”

Here’s what we know has happened so far in the Democratic primary for president. Since Hillary Clinton started spending money, hiring staff and campaigning, she has lost votes. In Iowa and New Hampshire, she was doing better in the polls in January than she is today. Heck, she had more votes last month than she has today.

Politics is about trends and the one thing we know is that trends escalate in speed as elections near. Even starting out with the huge lead that she did, Clinton can’t allow Sanders to keep gaining votes while she loses votes in the hope that the bleeding won’t be fatal in the long run.


The truth is, Hillary Clinton has supported every U.S. war since Vietnam. She supported not only DOMA, which her husband signed, but a travel ban on those who were HIV positive. She supported welfare cuts (remember her husband’s efforts toward “ending welfare as we know it”?). She supports the death penalty and campaigned in her husband’s place during the 1992 New Hampshire primary when he left to oversee the execution of an African-American man whose suicide attempt left him brain damaged.

And if “mass incarceration” is a problem today, keep in mind she has long advocated for the criminal justice policies that called for locking up more people for longer periods. She supports—and, as Secretary of State, participated in—the U.S. policy of targeted assassinations, including when the targets were American citizens.

In a political environment in which income inequality is a rallying cry, she makes $300K plus expenses an hour. In fact, she would be the wealthiest person elected president in the modern era.

We can debate the merits of each of these positions but it’s hard to argue it’s not exactly the dream résumé for the 2016 progressive candidate. And guess what? The politically active, motivated voters of Iowa and New Hampshire know the difference between someone who got to the White House with a DLC-backed president and a guy who went mainstream when he started calling himself a socialist and not a revolutionary.

While that’s all true, it was true in 2008, too. John Edwards, in particular, was pointing this out. She nonetheless won the popular vote in the New Hampshire primary. Stevens’ argument only makes sense if we presume that the Democratic nominating electorate has become much more ideologically motivated in the intervening years. Post-Occupy Wall Street and post-Citizens United, it’s plausible that they have.

But you can’t beat someone with no one and even Stevens admits that Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be the nominee. So what’s the scenario by which she loses?

Hillary Clinton’s greatest strength—more than being a woman, more than being a Clinton—is the fact that polls show her consistently beating Republicans. Democrats see her as someone who can hold the White House. If she loses to Bernie in Iowa or New Hampshire, most likely the subsequent polls will show her losing to a handful of top Republicans.

And then what happens? Will the Democratic Party rally around her?

Perhaps. But more likely party voices, with great and solemn regret (masking their deep panic), will begin to say that Hillary had her chance, she fought a good fight, but we can’t lose the White House.

Who would get in? I still think Elizabeth Warren could be drawn in under this scenario. It’s very different to get into a race to challenge the inevitable Hillary Clinton versus getting into a race to save the party from a wounded Hillary Clinton. John Kerry could get in. Who knows? Perhaps Martin O’Malley does emerge as the viable alternative.

This makes no sense whatsoever. Warren is plausibly more attractive to the average Democratic primary voter than Clinton. But, if the argument is that party leaders—if such can be said to exist in the modern era—would intervene because Clinton would be lagging behind Jeb Bush and company, why on earth would they turn to Warren, a candidate with much less general election appeal? O’Malley makes more sense in that scenario but he shares most of the flaws that Stevens ascribes to Clinton with respect to the nominating electorate. Kerry makes more sense, I suppose, but he wound up as the default choice in 2004 after Howard Dean’s explosion; he’s hardly a progressive’s dream candidate.  If they’re going to dust off a failed candidate, they might as well go with Al Gore. He at least won the popular vote when he ran.

But Stevens turns his piece upside down at the end:

So how does Hillary Clinton avoid the danger of this scenario? Easy. She has to win Iowa and New Hampshire. She should win Iowa and New Hampshire, and handily. She’s running against an obscure 73-year-old socialist from a tiny state that has few minorities and little organized labor, two of the longtime power centers in the Democratic Party.

But to beat Sanders, Clinton has to stop trying to be Sanders-lite and get about the business of explaining why he’s wrong and she’s right. That’s how every race is won or lost. She has to lay out the case that Sanders has bad ideas—and most of his are—that will kill jobs and hurt people. She has to run as Hillary Clinton, not some new creation that a bunch of thirtysomething operatives put together as a poli-sci project.

He provides no evidence whatsoever that Clinton is doing that. As best I can tell, she’s pretty much ignoring Sanders at this point but one presumes she’ll take him on in the debates if he’s still showing strong in the polls months from now when the race begins in earnest. That has the additional advantage of making her seem moderate in contrast, positioning her well for the general election.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    After my initial reaction of who the heck is Stuart Stevens, I clicked through and read his bio at The Daily Beast.

    Stuart Stevens was the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

    I think that’s all that needs to be said on this subject.

  2. Bob says:

    All that to say, “Hillary is the favorite, until she isn’t”?

    Someone got paid big bucks to come up with that “theory” too.

    Who says political consulting isn’t the best job in the world?

  3. Castanea says:

    Clinton has no reason to go after Sanders yet because she doesn’t want to come across as a triangulating, posturing red-baiter/hippie-puncher. Likewise, Sanders has no interest in going negative because that isn’t his image, style or character.

    Clinton can win on electability (“Do you want more Scalias on SCOTUS for the next three-four decades?”), experience, foreign policy, being a long-time target of conservative anger and possibly because a lot of democrats just want a solid female candidate.

  4. Tyrell says:

    @Bob: Yes, and remember these: “it’s not over ’til it’s over”
    and, “Who’s on first ? No, who’s on second”
    This is Hillary’s election to lose. But she is going to have to get out of her “gated” walled off campaign with the scripted Oprah-like discussions, roped off news media, and boring speeches that say nothing the people have not heard since 2007. All the people have heard in the news is: “unbeatable, she has it sewn up, in the bag”. Those kind of comments may be working against her.
    Underdogs who have affected elections: Eugene McCarthy, George Wallace, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader.
    I remember that Nixon tried playing it safe when he ran against Hubert Humphrey: no debates, scripted, sanitized news “conferences”, and generic speeches. He almost lost. If we had one more week, Humphrey would have won.

  5. Hal_10000 says:

    Can I have some of whatever this guy is smoking? There’s basically no scenario — short of a sudden health issue — under which Clinton fails to win the Democratic nomination. The only reason she didn’t win it in 2008 was because Obama had a better ground game. And even then, it was extremely close. Bernie Sanders is no Barack Obama. Whether she will win the general election is a reasonable question. But the idea that she’ll lose the primary or that it will be particularly close is a myth, a fairy story, it’s what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to become Dick Morris.

  6. Isn’t what all this is demonstrating is that the mainline Democratic Party is far less left than its critics like to think? Certainly it is arguing that Clinton is less left than she is accused of being. (I have argued that Obama could have once fit into the moderate wing of the GOP a few decades ago and Hillary is more of a hawk than Obama is).

    I think that yes, a lot of Democratic primary voters are being drawn to Sanders at the moment as a combination protest against the fact that party is quite moderate, or as a fantasy–but I bet most of them know that Bernie is not winning anything.

    Indeed, to a point I noted above, the reason I suspect a lot of Democratic voters who are currently being polled find Hillary’s hawkishness to be a negative.

    Still: at the end of the day, Hillary is going to be nominated (barring some truly shocking event) and her moderateness will help her in the general (and the usual suspects can rant about that characterization, but it doesn’t change the underlying facts of the matter).

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Castanea: Not to mention the fact that she needs the people who will vote for Sanders in the primaries to vote for her in the general. This election, like most, will turn on GOTV. Can’t get them out by insulting them.

  8. JohnMcC says:

    @Tyrell: That Abbott and Costello skit is much better than you remember! And it’s ‘who’s on first?’ (a first baseman named Who) and ‘what’s on second?’ and ‘Idon’tknow?’ on third and so on and so on until all nine players are terminally confused. You should look it up.

    Much better for the brain than worrying about Hillary’s chances in November of 2016.

  9. DK says:

    @Castanea: Hillary won’t bash Sanders from the right. She’s not about to alienate his white liberal base, although she doesn’t need all of it: no chance a Democrat wins the nomination while losing blacks AND women. Sanders won’t peel either group from Hillary like Obama was able to win blacks.

    The way Hillary blunts Sanders’ momentum is to highlight his pro-NRA stance, something no one is talking about — yet. But she is now pushing gun control hard, demonstrating that she intends to run to Bernie’s left on gun proliferation if she has to. The spotlight on Bernie’s right wing views on guns will give enough progressives pause that Hillary retains her lead.

  10. J-Dub says:

    I think there is still a sentiment in the Democratic party that it could lose a Presidential election with the wrong candidate. Even if the majority of the party is ideologically closer to Sanders, they wouldn’t feel comfortable putting him out there against a Republican. Clinton is the safe bet right now, especially with the Republican majorities in Congress. If Clinton wins this time then gets re-elected in 2020, then the party might nominate a further left candidate in 2024. Probably too late for Sanders but Warren might still be around and ready by then.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Stuart Stevens.

  12. EddieInCA says:


    It’s “professional advice” like this that makes anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the currently political environment want to stab themselves in the head.

    1. Sanders is getting some crowds.
    2. The Clinton campaign knows this, but doesn’t care.
    3. Why? Because Clinton has some pretty good people working for her, and they know that while Sanders is getting some excitement and some crowds, he’s still nowhere near being any sort of threat to Clinton’s nomination. Which means that…
    4. …the Clinton campaign will continue to ignore Sanders and work on getting out their message.
    5. The moment the Clinton campaign thinks Sanders is a threat, there will suddenly be alot of stories of some of the unsavory things Bernie Sanders has said and written about over the past 30 years.
    6. Until then, “Uncle Bernie” will be allowed to say and do what he wants. If he gets too close, the Clinton machine will crush him. This isn’t 2008.

  13. Scott says:

    The way I hear Sanders going about his campaign is not running against Hillary but for his point of view and against the right. Hillary doesn’t have to push back on Bernie because he is not pushing on her. This is the best of both situations: bashing right wing ideas and their mouthpieces and getting space on the left.

  14. Barry says:

    @Hal_10000: “There’s basically no scenario — short of a sudden health issue — under which Clinton fails to win the Democratic nomination. The only reason she didn’t win it in 2008 was because Obama had a better ground game. ”

    And she’s both hired Obama’s people (i.e., learned, and didn’t let her ego rule) and her campaign very clearly recognizes that it’s not 2008, 2000, or 1992.

    The latter is something that 90% of pundits fail to recognize.

  15. Barry says:

    @EddieInCA: “The moment the Clinton campaign thinks Sanders is a threat, there will suddenly be alot of stories of some of the unsavory things Bernie Sanders has said and written about over the past 30 years.”

    Actually, the moment that Sanders is a threat, the MSM will remember that he’s the most liberal candidate who matters on both sides, and trash the living f*ck out of him.

    The ‘liberal’ MSM doesn’t like people who are strongly liberal on economics.

  16. Kylopod says:

    I loved this line:

    “He’s the most left-wing candidate to emerge as a serious threat to a front-runner in modern history.”

    Put aside for the moment the questionable notion that Sanders has “emerge[d] as a serious threat” to Hillary. Stevens’ claim that Sanders is the “most left-wing candidate” in that category seems based on nothing more than his having embraced “socialist” label. Absolutely none of the positions Stevens mentions to contrast Sanders with Clinton are in any way outside the mainstream of American political opinion. In fact, most of them are broadly popular with the electorate, and most of them don’t have anything in particular to do with socialism. Being for gay marriage before it was cool isn’t “socialist.” (By that standard, the Koch Brothers should move to the Kremlin.) The only strictly economic issue he mentions–welfare reform–hardly puts Sanders in different company than previous Democratic contenders. For example, Bill Bradley also opposed Clinton’s welfare-reform bill, and he later emerged as the runner-up in the 2000 Democratic contest.

    Stevens is a nitwit who’s hardly worth the wasted breath to refute (except that it’s fun!), but his inability to get past the s-word when talking about Sanders is something I see among lots of mainstream commentators, which is an indication to me both of the superficiality of political analysis today and the ridiculous socialist-phobia that continues to afflict American political culture.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:


    his inability to get past the s-word when talking about Sanders is something I see among lots of mainstream commentators,

    I would like to hear them define ‘socialism’ because it is certain sure they don’t have a clue. Probably something along the lines of, “What Republicans hate.”

  18. C. Clavin says:


    “…his inability to get past the s-word when talking about Sanders is something I see among lots of mainstream commentators…”

    Of course Obama (who has presided over 60 some odd months or private sector job growth, a net loss of public sector jobs, record corporate profits, and presented private sector insurance companies with millions of new customers) is a raging socialist…so who knows what to call Bernie?

  19. wr says:

    I love the idea that the problem is that Hillary will lose because she’s not liberal enough for the Democratic party, and that her way to win is to run as a Republican.

    That’s the kind of brilliant political strategizing that brought us President Romney.

  20. Barry says:

    James, one thing to watch for as a political scientist (and maybe for a paper!) is just how much the ‘liberal’ MSM and the political pundits (i.e., the alleged experts) will live up to the old saying about the House of Bourbon: ‘they remembered nothing and forgot nothing’.

    We’re going to see:

    1) The ‘liberal’ MSM rehash each and every scandal and accusation, with little mention of the fact that they’ve been investigated, thoroughly, by well-funded and connected partisan enemies.

    2) The ‘liberal’ MSM not do the same for either Dubya or Jeb Bush. Apparently the rules changed for presidents or governors permanently in 2001.

    3) The political ‘experts’ and the MSM will show little recognition that the politics and demographics have been changing quite a bit over the past 16 years. They’ll *never* understand the fact that Hillary is not conducting a xerox copy of her husband’s campaigns.

    4) That if the polls show Hillary as a front-runner vs. the GOP nominee, these same ‘experts’ will repeat every mistake and every lie they said in 2012, predicting a close race up until the very end, ignoring all polling, except for the outliers which make their case.

  21. Dean says:


    That may be the best description of this situation that I’ve ever seen. This isn’t Hilary’s (or Bill’s) first rodeo.

  22. MarkedMan says:

    I’ve been contending for a while that all this talk of Clinton’s personality only helps her in the long run. Oh, she does have a real personality problem but fortunately for her it’s not the one “everyone knows” about. Rather than the maniacal machine driven b*tch queen, Hillary always struck me as a very hardworking wonk. She’s a little bit boring and not given overly much to humor. This could be a big problem for her in the general, but this is where the media narrative helps her. When the average voter begins to know her in the summer of 2016 their reaction will be: “Hmm, what’s all this talk about what a crazy driven shrew she is? She seems perfectly normal to me”, rather then, “Hmm, she’s kind of nerdy and a bit boring”. In fact, that’s why she so soundly defeated the Republican candidate for Senator in NY. His entire campaign consisted of “C’mom! Hillary! My god why would you ever vote for Hillary! Look at her! We all hate her!”

  23. gVOR08 says:

    @EddieInCA: Agree with @Dean: very good. I’d add that there’s no reason to believe Bernie wishes to impede Hillary’s election. I don’t have a guess as to his end game, but I doubt we’ll ever reach the point that Hillary has to attack him.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @C. Clavin: Well, they could call him a communist, and definitely would if he got the Democratic nomination.

    I think they’re all having more fun following Donald Trump around like mice after the Pied Piper waiting for whatever outrageous thing Trump is going to say today.

  25. Tyrell says:

    @Kylopod: I think that he overlooked Eugene McCarthy, and Nader. McCarthy’s popularity led to Johnson not running.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    Hillary isn’t thinking about how to stop Bernie Sanders, she’s thinking of how to capitalize on the enthusiasm around him.

    Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, then Super Tuesday. Give Bernie the first two, maybe. No way in SC, no way in NV.

    Super Tuesday: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia.

    Bernie will take Vermont and might have a shot at Massachusetts. But that’s it. Because over the next couple of weeks it’s Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Florida, Arizona, Washington state, Alaska and Hawaii. Nothing there for Bernie, that’s all Hillary. New York’s date is up in the air it seems, but of course Hillary takes NY.

    Bernie ends up with a respectable handful of delegates. He’ll have been very well-treated by Hillary and will throw his support to her.

    Meanwhile, what’s Republican Front Runner Donald Trump said lately?

  27. Kylopod says:


    I think that he overlooked Eugene McCarthy, and Nader.

    I don’t see Sanders as being close to either category–nor do I think he wants to be, for that matter.

    The Sanders/McCarthy parallels are especially ridiculous. Hillary isn’t a sitting president running for reelection, as LBJ was in ’68. And despite some very vocal Internet commenters we sometimes encounter, there’s absolutely zero evidence of a major revolt from the left. Not only does Hillary remain very popular with all factions of her party, she has the highest poll numbers ever recorded for a non-incumbent presidential candidate. Sanders’ numbers aren’t especially impressive by normal standards; it’s just that Hillary’s ridiculously high numbers have led people to set the expectations for the other candidates unusually low.

    The idea of Sanders pulling a Nader and running as a third part y, creating a potential upset like in 2000, is somewhat more plausible, but I still don’t think it will ever happen. First of all, what happened in 2000 was a bit too freakish to draw general conclusions; third-party candidates with less than 2% support do not normally influence national elections. Second, I have seen no evidence that Sanders has any desire to hurt the Democratic Party. Unlike Nader he is a sitting US Senator who has caucused with the Dems for decades (despite officially identifying as an independent). I think he is running more as the Democratic equivalent of a Ron Paul, attempting to push the party in his ideological direction.

  28. Steve V says:

    I’ll have to remember this article when the Right starts inevitably calling her a communist.

  29. Tyrell says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: “What Republicans hate”: who expanded the medicare prescription plans back in 2003 to the tune of a cool $400 billion ?

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kylopod: Not to mention the fact that Bernie has already said he is running for the Dem nomination because a 3rd party run would only gift the Presidency to the GOP and that is the last thing he wants to do.

  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tyrell: First off, that was proposed by a white GOP President in an attempt to buy off the Senior citizen vote for the 2004 election. (did you notice Bush did not propose his SS privatization scheme till after the election? Oh yeah, that man was all political courage, he was) It worked. But now that you bring it up, who didn’t come up with a way to pay for that expansion of entitlements?

    Now, compare the reaction to that program from the political right to their reaction to an overhaul of our entire healthcare system, one that promised to reduce the uninsured in this country, make insurance far more affordable, make “No Claim Insurance Policies”*** illegal, reduce healthcare inflation, reduce the budget deficit, AND pay for itself, an overhaul proposed and shepherded thru Congress by a cohort of Dem Congress people and Senators led by a black Democratic President? And it has succeeded, despite everything the GOP could do to make it fail, and would have succeeded even more without their efforts.

    Can you tell what Republicans hate now?

    *** The “No Claim Insurance Policy is from an old Monty Python skit, “You are covered until you make a claim!”

  32. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: As I recall it was widely reported at the time that Medicare Part D was a political ploy driven by Rove to support his Permanent Republican Majority plan.

  33. michael reynolds says:

    The first really intelligent analysis of Hillary’s campaign from Nick Gillespie, of all people. I said the same thing weeks ago, but hey, he’s an expert so now it’s real.

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Exactly. Then they sh!t all over themselves after the election with the SS privatization plan.

  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: Well, when they agree with you, of course their being intelligent now. 😉

  36. michael reynolds says:


    It’s not absolutely necessary for a person to agree with me in order to be a genius, but it is the most direct and quickest route.

  37. An Interested Party says:

    I’m strongly reminded of Rick Lazio and his disastrous blunders that helped Hillary to win her first Senate election…there’s no reason to think that Republicans won’t repeat Lazio’s mistakes…in this election, much like her husband and the man who beat her in 2008, she’s blessed by the opponents she has…