Should Democratic Candidates Care About Hillary Clinton's 2016 Timeline?

Long-lasting question marks around a possible Clinton presidential run could leave Democrats unprepared for 2016.

Hillary Clinton at a news conference at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute on July 23, 2014 in Oakland, California. (National Journal)

Writing about the choice in front of Hillary Clinton — a hard choice, if you will — is like an advanced course in hypotheticals.

Trying to divine the strategy for Clinton's announcement is like graphing a Punnett square with two variables. The first variable: Will she or won't she run? The second: Will she announce her decision early on, or take her sweet time?

Either way, Clinton's decision is sure to delight some Democratic politicians and stymie others. If she announces her candidacy too early, that opens the floodgates to conservative attacks. Diametrically, if she announces late in the game that she is not going to run, other Democrats who were waiting on her go-ahead may find it's too late to build up their own campaigns.

It's unlikely that Clinton will announce early either way, which leaves us with two options. Option one: She announces late that she is running, thus confirming the idea everyone has been taking for granted for at least the past six months, and sinking every other Democrat's hopes of running a competitive campaign. Option two: Clinton announces in early 2015 that no, she's not running — thus rendering the months of think pieces totally useless, and opening up the nomination to someone you're likely not thinking too much about.

If Clinton decides not to run, it could be an enormous boon to one of her fellow Democrats in particular. According to Steve McMahon, a presidential campaign veteran and the cofounder of the political consulting firm Purple Strategies, Clinton's un-candidacy would all but open the door for Democratic Nominee Joe Biden, and the vice president wouldn't hurt for lack of setup time.

"It's hers to lose if she wants it, but she may not want it," McMahon said. "If she doesn't run, then there will be a big field, but the longer it takes for the field to materialize, the weaker everybody in it — except Joe Biden — will be."

This theory, of course, discounts the fact that while there is a fledgling "Run, Liz, Run" movement there's no "Ready for Joe" movement yet. A recent CNN poll found that 67 percent of likely Democratic voters would vote for Clinton, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Biden each trailing her by at least 50 points. Warren received 10 percent to Biden's 8 percent.

But what a Biden candidacy lacks in grassroots enthusiasm would be more than made up for with a well-oiled campaign apparatus.

"There's no barrier for him," McMahon said. "He's vice president, he's run before, he would inherit the bulk of the Obama campaign machinery and people, and he would be running 60 miles an hour while everybody else was putting on their track shoes."

One Democratic consultant noted that the 2016 cycle is odd because of the lack of Democratic candidates who are at least openly flirting with running at this stage.

"It's very strange that in 2014, you don't see any of that," the consultant, who asked to be quoted anonymously because of work with potential candidates, said. "And I think it's because many national Democrats are afraid that it will look like they are positioning themselves against Clinton."

The general attitude of the Democratic Party leaves Clinton in an enviable position.

"I think it's in her best interest to wait," the consultant said. "That doesn't mean it's in the best interest of the Democratic Party."

Steve McMahon agrees. "Given the level of organization that's popped up around her, she certainly isn't harmed by waiting," he said. "If I were Hillary Clinton, I would be in absolutely no hurry to decide or announce what I'm doing. If I were somebody else who wants to run for president, I would be desperate to get an answer from her as quickly as possible."

That desperation has left Democrats (and political reporters) looking for any tell-tale dog whistles from Clinton — traveling to Iowa or New Hampshire, for instance. But Clinton has been wary not to send any signals.

Meanwhile, other national Democrats have used their star power in local races. Warren recently headlined a New Hampshire fundraiser for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has campaigned for candidates in New Hampshire and Iowa.

But Warren's campaign work and her rising star in the party — despite her oft-repeated denial that she is running for president — are nothing compared with Clinton's reputation among the well-heeled Democratic donor base. As one New York donor recently told the Daily Beast, "If Elizabeth called me up and said, 'I am thinking of running for president,' I would say, 'Elizabeth, are you out of your [expletive] mind?' "

Michael McCurry, a former press secretary to Bill Clinton, said the pressure for Clinton to announce her run could be ratcheted up, depending on the outcome of the midterm elections.

"If Democrats lose the Senate in November, then every Democrat will believe that a Democratic president is all that stands between a GOP Congress and reversing some of the progress made in the last generation or so," McCurry said in an email. "Because if she is NOT running, then someone needs time and opportunity to build to her level of national support and name recognition."

Joe Trippi, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, says other Democrats who want to run shouldn't hold their breath waiting for Clinton.

"There are plenty of people like Martin O'Malley who are out there, going to Iowa, going to New Hampshire, putting the fundraising structure in place if they decide to go," Trippi told National Journal. "And if somebody isn't doing that because they think Hillary Clinton's running ... then they deserve to lose."

Clinton has said she would make her announcement (and delete the "TBD" line from her Twitter bio) in "early 2015." But what does history say about when candidates are likely to get into the race?

The New Hampshire primary — the first presidential primary in the country — is often used as a benchmark for when candidates should throw their hat into the ring. Before 1972, no presidential nominees declared their candidacy until roughly six months, or 200 days, before the New Hampshire primary. But since 1996, each party's presidential nominee has announced his candidacy earlier, ahead of that six-month mark. In 2008, both John McCain and Barack Obama announced their candidacies more than 300 days ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

Some perspective: We are still more than 500 days out from the New Hampshire primary, which will take place on Jan. 26, 2016. So, going by the 300-day benchmark, Clinton has until roughly April 2015 to announce her decision — at least. That could mean eight more excruciating months for pundits and waffling Democratic candidates alike.

But Clinton could just as easily wait longer to announce her decision and draw out the suspense. And why not? She has every reason to take her time announcing a decision, and hold off the inevitable oppo-avalanche.

"I don't think there are really any real political consequences to her for waiting," Trippi said. "In fact, I think it's to her advantage to wait as long as she wants."