Another round of emails from Hillary Clinton’s time at the State Department has been released, and the media continues its preoccupation with the issue – often at the expense of more substantive issues.
Clinton’s Republican rivals in the US presidential race have had a field day lambasting her over them. Pundits and even some political scientists are speculating about whether the email controversy might cause lethal damage to her bid for the White House.
The coverage of the subject continues to produce new revelations about her conduct, shading out issues Hillary Clinton would prefer to talk about. Such lack of message control certainly isn’t helping her campaign, but the email scandal pales in comparison to much more serious obstacles to Clinton’s White House aspirations.
My own research on women and politics and work by other scholars suggests that more traditional forces are working against Hillary Clinton’s campaign. They may not draw the same level of media scrutiny, but they should be more worrisome to her supporters.
‘Time for a change’
Chief among those issues is the “time for a change” factor.
Political science research has documented that presidential candidates of the party in power for more than two terms consistently suffer an electoral penalty. In 2008, with George W Bush stepping aside after two terms, it was Republican John McCain hamstrung by this trend.
In 2016, it is the Democratic Party nominee for president who will be on the wrong side of voter fatigue with the incumbent administration. In 1988, Vice President George H W Bush demonstrated the time-for-a-change factor was not an insurmountable barrier to his campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, the impulse of many voters to shake up Washington will likely continue to weigh down Clinton for the remainder of the election cycle.
Another variable more crucial to Hillary Clinton’s electoral fortunes than her handling of emails is voter perceptions of President Obama. While Obama isn’t on the ballot next year, his approval rating will carry a great deal of influence on who succeeds him. Right now his approval rating is slightly underwater. If it climbs into positive territory next year, then Clinton’s chances of victory will be buoyed. If it drops much further, Clinton will confront an electoral burden far more daunting than any classified emails she may or may not have sent.
One of President Bill Clinton’s political advisers gained notoriety for proclaiming “it’s the economy, stupid” during his 1992 campaign against President Bush. While this line gets invoked too frequently to explain various political developments, there is well-documented relationship between economic conditions and the performance of the incumbent president’s party in the year of the election. The current rate of US economic growth is not setting any records, but it is in positive territory despite the recent correction in the stock market. However, were the economy to enter a slump during 2016, that development would tip the electoral playing field in favor of the eventual GOP nominee.
Another uncertainty that Clinton must contend with is whether the US electorate is truly ready for a female president. While over 90% of US adults indicate that they will support a qualified female presidential candidate, there still is the possibility that pockets of voters may be resistant to the idea. Some political scientists argue racial resentment weighed down Obama’s campaign in 2008, and it is possible that Clinton might be similarly disadvantaged in 2016 if enough voters harbor reservations about a woman in the White House.
Clinton still well-positioned
All of these issues loom much larger for the Clinton campaign than how the email situation plays out. Yet even taking them into account, Clinton is still in a strong position to win the nomination, and she is – at worst – close to an even bet to win the general election.
Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders may have exceeded expectations so far, but his chances of winning the nomination are remote. His lack of support among the Democratic Party establishment, questions about his viability in a general election and weak support among core Democratic constituencies will prevent him from overcoming Clinton’s enormous institutional advantages.
Rumors about the possibility of Vice President Joe Biden entering the race continue to swirl, but even if he does take the plunge, the likelihood of him derailing Clinton’s nomination is not much better.
Biden’s first two campaigns for the White House were far from stellar, and his record on criminal justice issues, support for the credit card industry, the Iraq War and the Reagan tax cuts won’t play well among the Democratic electorate. He has a record Clinton can easily remind voters of with her massive war chest should Biden start gaining traction.
The email scandal has not painted Hillary Clinton in a favorable light, but the establishment candidates for the Republican nomination are experiencing their own set of struggles on the campaign trail. Yet even as her favorability ratings have declined, she still remains ahead in most head-to-head match-ups with her likely Republican rivals. Her standing among oddsmakers and prediction markets also suggests her position has not taken as much of a hit as some of the media coverage suggests.
Unless much more damaging allegations emerge, the latest email coverage won’t garner much more than a footnote when the history of this campaign ends up being written. Clinton may well be unsuccessful in her bid to become the first female president. But if she fails, it won’t be her handling of emails during her stint as secretary of state that played a decisive factor.