One of the most important elements of a Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential candidacy might be completely out of her hands.
Two of the favored rhetorical questions around her presumed bid are: How much will she distance herself from President Barack Obama? And, relatedly, will she be able to capture the Obama coalition that propelled the President to victory twice, but hasn’t shown up in the midterm elections?
They are of course linked: If Obama is unpopular, a Clinton campaign will be tempted to present a sharp contrast. At the same time, the President will likely remain popular with the core Democratic base that she needs to harness. But the record tells us that, however the Obama presidency is faring like in its final months, it’s going to influence his aspiring successor’s White House ambitions.
The third-term problem is a historical fact at this point: U.S. voters just don’t choose to give a party three (or more) consecutive terms in the White House. Since FDR, George H.W. Bush is the only President to be elected to succeed a two-term predecessor from the same party.
Political scientists have documented the link between presidential approval rating and final vote tallies (regardless of whether it is an open election or an incumbent is running.) In a 2012 book, “The Timeline of Presidential Elections”, Columbia University’s Robert Erikson and the University of Texas’s Christopher Wlezien concluded that presidential approval rating is one of the best indicators of what the actual vote will look like.
“(Obama’s) approval rating has real bearing on 2016,” Wlezien told TPM in an email.
The link might not be as strong as it otherwise would be when a President is running for re-election, John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, told TPM. But based on his own look at the data, Sides said, it still has an effect on an open race, as 2016 will be.
“When the incumbent is not running, better approval ratings still appear to help the incumbent party’s new candidate,” he said, “but the relationship is weaker.”
If better approval ratings help, then worse ones could surely hurt. Obama is currently sitting at 42 percent, according to Gallup. He was at 52 percent when he won re-election in 2012 with 51 percent of the popular vote. Reagan was polling at 51 percent in October 1988 and Bush took 53 percent of the popular vote, per the archive of Gallup polls compiled by the University of Connecticut.
Much has already been made of any moments in which Clinton has been perceived to be distancing herself from the President. The response to her interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which she appeared to criticize the Obama White House’s “don’t do stupid stuff” mantra in foreign policy, was a classic example. It can sometimes be overwrought.
Things could certainly change by November 2016. Reagan sank as low as 43 percent in March 1987 by the end of the Iran Contra scandal. He had managed to recover by the time Bush was on the ballot. Still, it will be important for Clinton to avoid being lumped in with the Obama administration or even the first Clinton administration, one Democratic strategist advocating for a Hillary 2016 bid said.
“If she decides to run, she should not run as a third Bill Clinton term or a third Barack Obama term,” Craig Smith, Clinton White House political director and a senior adviser to the Ready for Hillary PAC, said on Friday when asked by TPM. “She should run for a first Hillary Clinton term.”
How easy will that be, given the historical precedents and her tenure as one of the top Cabinet officials in the Obama administration?
“As long as she lays out a clear vision of where she wants to take this country and a clear message about why she’s doing this,” he said, “I think it’ll be fine.”
Republicans, for their part, seem intent on linking Clinton to the Obama presidency as frequently as possible. It has already become a staple of GOP messaging, and the anti-Clinton PAC America Rising has purchased an online home for it: Obama3rdTerm.com.
“There is no major issue in which Sec. Clinton and President Obama disagree. She was the Mother of Obamacare, the face of his foreign policy, and a behind the scenes advocate for all his domestic initiatives,” Tim Miller, America Rising PAC’s executive director, told TPM in an email. “Any idea that she will be able to effectively distance herself from him ignores reality.”