Is Hillary Clinton's Nomination Inevitable?

The Democratic candidate is the prohibitive favorite, and finding it a mixed blessing.

A supporter holds an "I'm Ready for Hillary" sign during a rally in Manhattan. (Darren Ornitz/Reuters)

Hillary Clinton's nomination is inevitable. Wherever they go, her Democratic rivals will face either confusion—You’re who, again?—or a wall of supporters who are ready for Hillary. And whichever Republican battles his or her way out of the crowded field will immediately have to contend with a tanned, rested, and ready Clinton.

Or so some people would have you believe. But wasn’t Clinton inevitable in 2008 too, before she lost? She certainly had strong, double-digit leads in the polls for much of 2006 and 2007. In July 2007, Clinton’s chief strategist even sent out a memo—summarized in a Ben Smith article headlined “Hillary the Inevitablelinking to 40 polls showing Clinton ahead of Barack Obama. As The Washington Post notes, Hillary’s lead in early primary polls in 2006 was substantial, smaller than Al Gore’s in 1999 but larger than Walter Mondale’s in 1983.

Yet in fact, the word “inevitable” was more often used during the 2008 contest to describe what Clinton was not. At the Post, Aaron Blake searched old newspapers for “Hillary Clinton” and “inevitable” and found just four matches. Three writers suggested Clinton, though formidable, could certainly be beaten, while one 2006 writer ascribed a belief in Clinton’s invincibility to the “common wisdom.” But as early as April 2007, The New York Times had already ruled out a Clinton coronation:

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.

The polls show how different things are this time, despite the echo of the I-word. Even taking early polls with the requisite grain of salt, Clinton’s lead in this cycle is a sign of a prohibitive favorite. Since mid-2013, Clinton’s share of Democratic primary voters has averaged around 60 percent. In the build-up to 2008, it hovered under 40. Nate Cohn analyzed the polling data for the Times and writes, “If a candidate has ever been inevitable—for the nomination—it is Mrs. Clinton today.” CNN skips the preliminaries and just compares Hillary’s numbers to top Republican candidates.

Then there’s the tone of Clinton’s press coverage: Journalists are gearing up for Clinton’s likely primary victory and preparing for a long working relationship. Politico magazine asks whether fear or animus lies behind Clinton’s poor connection with reporters. My colleague Molly Ball rounded up complaints from the press about the pre-candidate’s pablum-filled speeches—this more than two years before the actual election. Last year, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza examined the “inevitability trap,” or the drawbacks of a candidate’s going through a campaign without having her policies or debate skills truly tested; Time uses the i-word too. Without the thrills of a close contest to cover, journalists will—inevitably—continue to focus on Hillary’s personality and readiness for the general election.

It seems reporters aren’t the only ones hoping Hillary faces a fight: According to a Bloomberg News poll, 72 percent of Democrats and independents agree that she ought to have a serious challenger. And a Politico story previewing Hillary’s campaign launch claimed Clinton has privately told aides she wants to avoid the “coronation atmosphere” of her 2008 bid.

The perception of inevitability is often regarded as a self-fulfilling prophecy. But for Clinton, it looms as a formidable hazard. If voters believe her rise is actually inevitable, or that she believes it to be so, they may pull back and take a second look at her challengers. The challenge, for Clinton, lies in convincing her rivals that her rise is inevitable—while convincing the public that the choice remains theirs.