Hillary Clinton now has what a presidential candidate seeks: a sense of inevitability about eventual nomination. "Can Clinton be stopped?" headlines ask, as she tops polls and tops off campaign coffers. For the sake of a healthy democracy, it's time to invoke Yogi Berra's caution: It ain't over till it's over.
The Democratic New York senator has worked hard to get to this point, a position that has its advantages. A presumptive winner in the primaries commands campaign dollars and media attention (though the latter can be a mixed blessing). This necessarily weakens competitors, who are then forced to spend less time promoting themselves and more time trying to knock out the frontrunner (another mixed blessing).
Historically, the early leader usually bags the nomination, though there may be some stumbles along the way. That's why a string of candidates – both Bushes, Al Gore, Bob Dole, and Walter Mondale, to name a few – worked to create the perception of presumed nominee.
When Senator Clinton took the usually slow summer fundraising season and turned it into a record-setting clam rake, when she appeared on five Sunday talk shows in one morning last month, when even President Bush spoke of her as the one to beat – then she must have known she was wearing that invisible crown of inevitability.
But there's danger in perceived early coronation. It can dampen the competitiveness of campaigns and ideas.
As the presumptive nominee, for instance, Vice President Al Gore faced little serious challenge in 2000, and won every primary and caucus. Perceived untouchableness can also lead a candidate to caution, which may mean holding back on one's real views or character – a complaint about Mr. Gore, and also Clinton.
And it can feed complacency among voters. What's the point of going to the polls if the winner is a foregone conclusion? Healthy democracies depend on healthy competition and voter participation.
The record may favor front-runners, but exceptions in history should give any leading candidate pause. In 1972, Democrat Ed Muskie was the expected nominee, until the New Hampshire primary jolted him. Much fresher in the public mind is the case of Democrat Howard Dean, whose 2004 candidacy imploded in Iowa when caucusgoers questioned his temperament and electability.
Clinton is not Dean. Her campaign machine is massive, her pockets are deeper, and so is her experience on the national scene. Her national appeal among Democrats looks genuinely broad among reliable primary voters: women, seniors, and blue-collar workers.
And yet Iowa and New Hampshire often buck the national trend. Pat Buchanan upset Bob Dole in the New Hampshire GOP primary in 1996, and John McCain did the same with George W. Bush in 2000. Even though Clinton recently took the lead in Iowa, it's a slim one.
Voters in these states take time to decide. In 2004, more than two-thirds of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa did not decide until the last month – many in the last week.
Clinton may be in an enviable position. But she is not yet in an inevitable one.