The Myth Of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Inevitability And The 2016 Election

One of the most repeated comments about the 2016 race is based on something that just isn't true.

Hillary Clinton Barack Obama 2008

One of the most persistent narratives of the 2008 Presidential election is the idea that an unknown guy named Barack Obama, who had just been elected Senator two years earlier, came out of nowhere and did something nobody thought he could in beating Hillary Clinton. It’s an argument that has motivated supporters of “underdog” candidates in both parties ever since, and it has been cited many times in the past year by Republicans and other pundits seeking to undermine the idea of Hillary Clinton as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee in 2016 should she choose to run. It’s one of those political stories that everyone seems to think is true, but as Aaron Blake points out today, it’s not really true:

1) Clinton was the favorite, but Obama was instantly a player

Here’s how top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett recalled it all in a “Meet the Press” interview airing Sunday: ”I mean, my goodness, if we listened to the polls, he would’ve abandoned the race in the middle of the primary session.”

The truth: Basically every major poll conducted after the 2006 election showed Obama in second place for the Democratic nomination. Many of them showed him down by double digits, yes, but he was hardly out of contention by any stretch of the imagination.

Politicians and their supporters are great at recalling that time everyone counted them out — even if it never technically happened.

There were definitely doubters with Obama, but it’s not like he was this nobody coming on to the political scene. He had delivered a rousing speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and some early polls even showed him within 11 or 12 points of Clinton – before he even announced his campaign in February 2007.


True, all of these polls showed Clinton up by double digits. But anybody who thinks an 11- or even a 20-point lead a year before the first primaries is insurmountable probably doesn’t know much about politics.

Blake goes on to note that the meme of Hilary’s inevitability wasn’t as big as we remember it either:

Going back to 2006 and 2007, we could find very little evidence of anybody publicly calling Clinton the “inevitable” nominee. Here’s what we found when we searched in LexisNexis for “Hillary Clinton” and “inevitable”:

  • The Boston Globe’s Joan Vennochi, in March 2005: “So, case closed? No other Democrats need apply? That is ridiculous.”
  • Michael Reagan, in December 2006: “The common wisdom holds that it is all but inevitable that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, and that she’ll be a formidable if not unbeatable candidate.”
  • Fox News’s Brian Wilson, in February 2007: “There was a piece, I forget where, saying that Republicans think that the nomination of Hillary is inevitable. I don’t think they believe that.”
  • TNR’s Jonathan Chait, in February 2007: “But is Clinton really the front-runner for the nomination? Only if you look about one inch deep. So before we cancel the primaries, it’s worth exploring how this wisdom came into circulation.”

So basically there were maybe a few examples of people suggesting she might be inevitable, and slightly more people ascribing that view to unnamed other people (who might or might not have existed or been willing to speak on the record).

And then came the New York Times’s Adam Nagourney, in April 2007:

For Senator Clinton, Democrat of New York, the situation is not so seemingly dire, but any hope she had of Democrats embracing her candidacy as inevitable has been dashed by the rise of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the continued strength of John Edwards of North Carolina, and obvious discomfort in some Democratic quarters of putting another Clinton in the White House.”

That’s right, as of April 2007, just two months after Obama launched his campaign, whatever inevitability bubble existed had pretty much burst. What would follow was a whole bunch of hand-wringing about how some of those people had declared the primary over way too early.

Blake goes on to note that Obama wasn’t the only candidate in the 2008 field. We also had Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, and former Senator John Edwards. Yes, in retrospect all of these people don’t seem all that formidable, but if you put yourself in the place of someone 2006-2007, its not so hard to say that. After all, with those five candidates we had a total of 72 years of experience in the United States Senate, perhaps the largest cumulative tenure of any Presidential field in modern history. With the exception of Obama, of course, all of these men flamed out, but at the time it wasn’t apparent that this would happen and, the myth that has developed in the ensuing years that Hillary Clinton was an inevitable candidate brought down by a guy who came out of nowhere just doesn’t measure up to the facts.

As Blake puts it, getting this history correct is important because of the fact that many people, as I said both Republicans who are obviously seeking to undermine Clinton’s potential campaign and pundits who are trying to create a story where it’s not at all clear that one exists. It is simply incorrect to say that polls showing that Hillary Clinton has a huge lead today don’t tell us much because of what happened in 2008, mostly because what we have been led to think happened in 2008 didn’t really happen. Barack Obama was showing signs that he could be a formidable challenger early on in the campaign, and while the manner in which his campaign took off was something of a surprise, the fact that he ended up being the person who fought Clinton for the nomination until the end of the race really isn’t a surprise in retrospect.

Those same conditions simply don’t exist today, as just this poll result shows us:



Unlike the 2008 election cycle, there is quite simply no candidate that comes anywhere close to where President Obama was when the race started eight years ago. Indeed, Clinton’s numbers among Democrats are comparable to what you’d expect to see for an incumbent running for re-election rather than a potential candidate in an open race. Is it possible that someone, including someone not on this list, could come out of nowhere and surprise everyone? Sure, anything’s possible. As things stand right now, though, that doesn’t seem likely and it Clinton seems like a virtual lock if she runs in a way that quite simply was not true the last time she ran. Trying to compare what happened in 2008 to what could happen today, based on the available evidence, quite simply isn’t a valid argument.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. george says:

    2008 should make that obvious. As well as a long history of early front runners who lost when the nominations were finalized.

    I’m curious about whether Hillary’s camp thinks its an advantage or disadvantage to be seen as a sure thing at this point – you could make the argument either way.

  2. stonetools says:

    I’ll tell you one thing: The Hobby Lobby decision made the Hillary nomination a bit more inevitable. Every time the Supreme Court makes another anti-woman rights decision, voters are reminded that the President’s power to appoint a lifetime Constitution changer is one of their greatest superpowers and it’s vital to get a Democratic President in there-extra points if its a woman.

  3. jim m says:

    Clinton has a history of self destructing and many people find her unlikable. Biden would be a weak candidate. How many times did he run for the nomination and get rejected? Warren is epically shallow and MA is not exactly a difficult challenge for a democrat, and, with a few notable and obvious exceptions, sitting senators have a poor track record running in national elections.

    Best bet is someone like Cuomo. or Jim Webb. Both come with executive experience and are not just empty suits. 2+ years out the best bet is on the field as the real nominee is probably someone not on the list.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Here, here.

    Yesterdays abomination of a ruling brought into sharp relief just how incredibly important it is that a Republican not be allowed to appoint any more justices like the 5 that made up that majority.

    I would prefer that no more Clinton’s or Bush’s ever occupy the White House.
    But if Clinton gets through the primaries then I’ll vote for her.
    Yesterday didn’t change that…just clarified the importance.
    Interesting that Warren is drawing 7% when she isn’t even running.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @jim m:

    Clinton has a history of self destructing

    Care to flesh that thought out a bit?

  6. stonetools says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I think he means the one race she lost although getting millions of primary voters to vote for her.
    Did you that know that Saint Ronald Reagan ran for the Presidency twice and lost before succeeding the third time? He has twice the history of “self-destructing” that Hillary has!

  7. Tillman says:

    The media certainly loved inflating the David and Goliath feel of Obama vs. Clinton in the ’08 primaries.

    What bothers me the most is all this kowtowing to the Clintons going on by prospective Democrat candidates: this idea that “if she runs, I will not run.”

  8. C. Clavin says:

    But she never self-destructed…she simply lost. (Unless you call her terribly mis-guided Iraq War vote self-destructing…but that would be a stretch-and-a-half.)

  9. jim m says:

    @stonetools: You are quite right about Reagan, but then he also always polled as a likeable person. Hillary does not.

  10. Tillman says:

    @jim m: The consistent bias against electing another Clinton probably works against her in that regard too.

    Biden being weak doesn’t seem right to me, especially if you take into account his approval rating. Granted, they don’t measure it as often as the president’s, but he’s beating Obama by double-digits.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @jim m:
    But polling in March had her likability at 57%…even when the question was asked in an odd way…

    Do you think of Hillary Clinton as hard to like?

    …which seems, to me at least, to be a leading question.
    So with your claims of self-destructing and likability erased…I can only assume you’ll be voting for her.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @jim m:

    Senator Warren is not acting like someone who wants to be president. In watching a PBS show on Bill Clinton, several people remarked that Bill Clinton knew he wanted to be president and was determined to educate himself about the office and topics involved in being president.

    Senator Warren is still acting like a college professor who is not dependent on grant money. She still focuses on the few issues that interest her personally and seems to ignore everything else.

    Hillary does not seem that interest in educating herself about different issues. I guess she did not learn anything from living with Bill.

  13. Tillman says:

    @superdestroyer: Not certain Clinton needs educating on different issues having spent so long in the political spotlight on the political stage. Warren isn’t someone I see being president anyway; she seems most effective at achieving her goals as a senator.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    Right now, and it’s far too early to say, there is no one else on the horizon. Add to that the “first woman to be elected president’ factor and I’d say that there is more inevitability to Hillary’s possible nomination in 2016 than conservatives want to admit. I know that they (conservatives) say that “Benghazi” and “she’s a millionaire elitist” will be her undoing, but people have already made up their minds over this stuff, and she losses no voters over either of those ‘issues.’

    Hillary is not especially charismatic however, who else is there? Elizabeth Warren? She has even less charisma, plus, Warren in a national campaign is a real unknown.

    The biggest factor in 2016 is whether or not voters want to give the keys to the country back to the party that ran it into the ditch in 2008. If voters are weary of 8 years of a Democratic presidency, well then, unless Republicans nominate a guys like Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum, the GOP has a very good chance. I want to see what happens if the GOP nominates Rand Paul – that would fascinating.

  15. C. Clavin says:


    Right now, and it’s far too early to say, there is no one else on the horizon.

    Which is why Tillman’s point is so important…her presumed inevitability may very well prevent others from appearing on said horizon.

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    Clinton is polling like an incumbent because she has lot of name recognition. That does not mean that she is unbeatable, at least in the General Election.

  17. wr says:

    @jim m: “Best bet is someone like Cuomo. or Jim Webb. Both come with executive experience and are not just empty suits”

    Absolutely right that Cuomo isn’t an empty suit. Inside that suit is a moderate Republican.

    Maybe he’d do okay in a general, but how do you think this union-bashing, bank-loving, tax-hating, billionaire-worshipping pol who ran on stopping corruption and then shut down his own investigatory task force when they found some that would inconvenience him will do in Democratic primaries?

  18. wr says:

    @Tillman: ” Warren isn’t someone I see being president anyway; she seems most effective at achieving her goals as a senator.”

    I’d be happy to see her sitting in Scalia’s seat on the supreme court.

  19. C. Clavin says:

    Always beware of extremist Republicans (based on his comments re: sex being a lifestyle choice) offering political advice to the opposing party.

  20. rudderpedals says:

    Speaking of which Hillary would fit quite well on the Supreme Court, perhaps in Kennedy’s seat.

  21. C. Clavin says:

    Chait on how Republicans seem intent on helping Clinton.
    You can extend the same idea to yesterdays colossal abomination of a SCOTUS ruling.

  22. Cletus says:


    I agree that Warren is not running and probably would not do well in a national campaign. No way would she compete with Hillary either as the other woman in the race. The only thing that will stop Hillary is Hillary. The other candidates are pretty weak and she owes it to the party to run at this point in the game. Her Super PAcs have also raised a ton of money and are very well organized on the grass roots level.

  23. stonetools says:

    @jim m:

    Maybe to conservatives…
    I certainly didn’t think he was all that likeable.

  24. stonetools says:

    I’ll make this simple for everybody. The only way for Clinton to lose is if a candidate arose that would give the Democrats a better chance of winning the Presidency than Hillary-and there is no candidate on the horizon. What unites the Democrats and liberals here is that they know that they cannot risk the Presidency falling into Republican hands.
    The 2000 elections and everything that happened after that have provided a lesson that no Democrat and no liberal will ever forget. In particular, no Democrat believes or will ever believe again that “there is no difference between the two parties” or that there is such a thing as a “moderate Republican” willing to reach across the aisle to make “reasonable compromises.”2000-2008 killed the first myth, and 2009-2012 killed the second.
    The Republican Party have simply ceased to play regular politics. Rather , they’re playing “Game of Thrones” politics and in the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die. There is no room in Republican politics for compromise, “reasonable bipartisanship”, or working with Democrats to pass legislation and sharing the credit.
    When Obama became President, he had high hopes about inaugurating a new area of politics based on “reasonable bipartisan compromise.” He honestly thought that both Democrats and Republicans had a shared vision of what they thought America should be, and that what divided the parties was process. He was wrong, and no Democrat will make that mistake again.
    What that means is that the Democrats understand that job #1 isn’t “voting for principle” nor even “finding a third way”. It’s keeping the levers of powers away from a Republican Party that seems hell bent on dismantling the welfare state and returning the USA to the nineteenth century. That means uniting early behind the candidate most likely to crush the Republican presidential nominee and to bring along in their wake a Senate and maybe a House majority. Right now, HRC seems the only candidate likely to do all that, which is why the many Democrats who have reservations about HRC are shutting up and saluting. When you are in a no holds barred struggle with an opponent who has thrown away the rulebook, you unite and fight. Because in the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die.

  25. edmondo says:


    Absolutely right that Cuomo isn’t an empty suit. Inside that suit is a moderate Republican.

    You seem to love the current moderate Republican in the White House. Why not another?

  26. superdestroyer says:


    The reason that the Republicans are gun-shy concerning compromise is that is seems that every compromise makes the Democratic Party stronger and the Republicans weaker. Any Republicans who enters a deal with Democrats knows from the beginning that if it works, the Democrats will receive all of the credit but if it fails, the Repubican will be blamed.

    Any Republican who makes a deal with a Democratic should expect their own political extinction.

    HOwever, the real reason the Democrats do not want to really compromise (rather than have the Republicans concede an issue to them) is that the Democrats know that every demographic trend is in their favor and that there is reason for the Democrats to try to appeal to current Republican or swing voters. Why compromise when there will millions of additional automatic Democratic Party voters in a few years.

  27. @stonetools: Could not agree with you more, except for:

    In particular, no Democrat believes or will ever believe again that “there is no difference between the two parties”

    If you go on enough lefty blogs, you’ll find plenty of true believers who sincerely think Obama is worse than Bush because he didn’t give them all magic single payer unicorns.

  28. One other thing in Hillary’s favor now as opposed to then:

    If Hillary had been elected in 2008 (and then re-elected), it would have been 32 straight years with either a Bush or a Clinton in the executive office. (1980-2012) That strikes me as a little too close to a monarchy.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    When Obama became President, he had high hopes about inaugurating a new area of politics based on “reasonable bipartisan compromise.” He honestly thought that both Democrats and Republicans had a shared vision of what they thought America should be, and that what divided the parties was process. He was wrong, and no Democrat will make that mistake again.

    Indeed…there have been a lot of people lamenting that the President hasn’t been bipartisan enough when the fact is that he bent over backwards to try to make compromises with the Republicans but they simply wanted to oppose him on everything…the fact that we don’t have bipartisanship in Washington isn’t his fault…

    You are quite right about Reagan, but then he also always polled as a likeable person. Hillary does not.

    She’s not likeable compared to whom? Ted Cruz? Rand Paul? Chris Christie? She’ll do just fine against any of them…oh, and speaking of charisma, the lure of the first female president, just like the lure of the first black president, will be a powerful one…

  30. Kylopod says:

    I admit I’ve been guilty of mocking columnists for suggesting Hillary is “inevitable” now when they were saying the same thing last time around. There were many columnists saying it, on both sides of the political aisle. I kept hearing this phrase, “the Clinton machine,” an entity that was supposed to be unbeatable.

    But yes, it’s an exaggeration to suggest nobody took any of the other Democratic candidates seriously. Most pundits felt Obama and Edwards (and even earlier, retreads like John Kerry or Al Gore who ended up not entering the race) at least had potential.

    Still, I feel the situation is repeating itself in at least one respect: the way people consistently overrate Hillary’s political skills, which in turn makes her vulnerable because the expectations for her are so damn high. I do accept the conventional wisdom that the nomination is hers if she wants it. But I am not as sanguine as some of my fellow liberals about her chances of victory in the general election.

    For one thing, during the entire 2008 cycle it was widely recognized that it was the Democrats’ election to lose. That’s far from clear right now. In 2008 it was the Republicans who had held the White House for two terms; now it’s the Democrats. And while I don’t believe Obama’s presidency is on the same death spiral that Dubya’s was, his popularity right now is mediocre at best. Many liberals seem to be banking on the self-destructively nutty tendencies of Republicans, and while I think that tendency is real, and that it is damaging to them, it isn’t necessarily fatal to their electoral prospects. There are a lot of unknowns here, not the least of which is the state of the economy by 2016. And when you consider some of the howling mistakes Hillary has made in the past, and the fact that she’s not all that charismatic, you have to be a fool to think she’s automatically a shoo-in for the next election.

  31. PAUL HOOSON says:

    After the narrow 1968 loss of Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon, either Edmund Muskie or Hubert Humphrey looked like smart money bets to be the nominees in 1972, but Muskie quickly faltered and Hubert Humphrey finally dropped out at the convention after losing a vote challenging California’s “winner take all” rule which would award George McGovern all of the delegates from that state. After losing this vote on the rules, Hubert Humphrey told reporters, “I’m tired” dropping out the next day where Henry Jackson and others received some of Humphrey’s delegates. But, it was clear there was a sharp division in the Democratic Party, that was only much deeper among democratic voters, many of whom could not stomach George McGovern and voted for Richard Nixon in November.

    Are apparent shoo-in candidates vulnerable. Yes. And Hillary Clinton proved that before in 2008. – But, on the other hand, Ronald Reagan finally captured both the GOP nomination as well as presidency after failures in 1968 and 1976. Rather than being like the new Harold Stassen, Reagan finally redeemed his reputation as a loser for the presidency.

  32. Kylopod says:

    @PAUL HOOSON: Did you even read the post? The point was that Hillary was NOT commonly thought of as a shoo-in candidate in 2008, the way she is commonly thought of now. In the 2008 cycle, from the beginning there were several alternatives whom most people recognized as serious candidates; currently no such candidate has emerged yet. At least for now, she has the field to herself.

    In any case, using 1972 as your analogy is folly. That was the year the entire nomination process was overhauled, centering it completely on primaries as opposed to the national convention. And you know one of the main people in charge of that overhaul? George McGovern. One of the reasons he was nominated (when in most circumstances he’d have been a completely implausible candidate) is that he understood better than his rivals how the new system that he helped create worked.

  33. PAUL HOOSON says:

    @Kylopod: My point is that Hillary Clinton could stumble for any reason. Look at the Republicans last time, with about four frontrunners before returning back to Mitt Romney again. Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Barbara Bachmann were all favorites of the conservative wing for about a day before the flock allowed Mitt Romney to reclaim the frontrunner status again.

  34. Robin Cohen says:

    It’s scary to think that we could have another Clinton in the White House just because of name recognition and Hillary’s ego. The Bush dynasty was a bust with tragic, ongoing consequences for the Country. Let’s not make the same mistake in 2016. She favored the Iraq War, favored going into Syria and would do the same dumb things that Obama is doing in Iraq, bearing in mind that neither she nor Bill have any military experience. Do we really want war after war forever in this country?