Why Hillary Clinton e-mail troubles don't mean much for 2016

Despite a furor over her use of private e-mail for official business, poll show Clinton with massive leads in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and in hypothetical general election matchups. 

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks after being inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame in New York on Monday.

It’s been just over two weeks now since we first learned, via a New York Times report, that Hillary Clinton had used a private e-mail account for all her official communications while she was secretary of State, a revelation that raised eyebrows on both sides of the aisle in Washington, to say the least. Roughly a week later, Clinton made her first real public statement on the matter at a press conference which seemed to raise more questions than it answered and revealed, among other things, that Clinton and her advisers had been the sole parties to review her e-mails after she left office to decide what was “personal” and what was related to her State Department work. While that press conference didn’t go over well, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have signaled that they intend to pursue the issue further both as it relates to the ongoing Benghazi investigation and more generally, there have been few signs that Clinton is being harmed by the story. A Gallup poll last week, for example, showed that Clinton had higher favorable numbers than any of the potential Republican candidates for president notwithstanding the fact that her numbers had fallen significantly since she had served at Foggy Bottom and, indeed, that she seemed to be running away with the race. Now, a new poll from CNN shows Clinton with massive leads both in the race for the Democratic nomination and in hypothetical general election matchups:

Washington (CNN) Hillary Clinton continues to be a dominant force heading into the 2016 presidential election, according to a new CNN/ORC poll.The former secretary of state maintains a broad lead over the field of potential Democratic challengers she could face in a nomination contest and sizable advantages over the leading contenders from the Republican side in general election match-ups.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tops the possible field for the Republican Party’s nomination race, followed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson all in a tight cluster.

But none of the top candidates in this field gets within 10 points of Hillary Clinton in a series of hypothetical general election matchups.

Rand Paul comes closest, with 43% saying they’d be more likely to back him while 54% choose Clinton. The two candidates who currently top the GOP field, Bush and Walker, match up equally against Clinton, with each carrying 40% to her 55%. Huckabee gets 41% to Clinton’s 55% and Carson has 40% to Clinton’s 56%.

In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton holds a nearly 50-point lead over Vice President Joe Biden, her closest competitor in the field, 62% to 15%. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rounds out the top three on the Democratic side with 10%. No other potential candidate tops 5%.

Should Warren decide not to get into the race, Clinton stands to benefit more than others, gaining 5 points and holding a 67% to 16% advantage over Biden when Warren’s backers are re-allocated to their second-choice candidate. Notably, with Warren out of the race, Clinton surges from 67% support to 74% among Democratic women.

And Democrats broadly believe the party’s chances to hold the White House in 2016 are strongest with Clinton; 68% say so, while 30% say the party would have a better shot with someone else leading the ticket.

As always, one must keep in mind the caveat about early polls when looking at data like this. The Democratic primaries don’t begin for another 11 months, and the general election is still some 20 months away. At the very least, though, it appears to be safe to say that there seems to be little doubt at this point that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president next year, barring something completely unforeseeable at the moment. This polls shows the same thing that others in the past have shown, namely that Clinton has a seemingly insurmountable lead over her potential Democratic opponents, as well as Democrats who clearly aren’t going to get into the race, such as Elizabeth Warren. As I’ve noted before, this lead is far more substantial, and far stronger, than the one Clinton had over Barack Obama at a comparable time in the 2008 election cycle, and there isn’t anyone in the potential Democratic field who could even come close to being the an Obama-like candidate. So, unless there’s some unforeseen stumble on Clinton’s part, or a health issue, it’s pretty much a certainty that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 2016.

When it comes to the general election, it’s obviously far too early to say anything with certainty even based on these numbers. There are any number of things that could happen between now and November 2016 that could influence that outcome of the general election, many of which will be beyond the control of either of the candidates. The domestic economy could take a downturn, or there could be an international crisis that would likely cause problems for the Democrat seeking to succeed President Obama, Alternatively, Republicans could find themselves making the same kind of mistakes they’ve made in the past, which seems quite likely given the wide open GOP field and the likelihood that candidates will feel the need to pander to the most extreme elements of the party. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know if Hillary Clinton will be able to get the same kind of turnout among minority and young voters that President Obama did in 2008 and 2012, factors that were hugely important to his victory in both of these elections. And, finally, since we don’t even know who the Republican nominee will be, most of these head-to-head matchup polls are purely hypothetical.

Notwithstanding all of these caveats, though, Chris Cillizza notes that Clinton’s general election numbers are very good news for her, especially in light of the e-mail “scandal”:

The general election numbers are equally rosy for Clinton. Her slimmest lead over a Republican is 11 points over Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.  She leads former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the two men considered the party’s most likely nominees, by 15 points. She has a 13 point edge over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

And, horserace aside, there’s considerable agreement among partisans that Clinton is, by far, the Democrats’ best hope of holding the White House in 2016.  Nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) said Democrats were better off with Clinton as their 2016 nominee while just 30 percent said they’d be better with someone else.

Now, Clinton’s numbers are not what they once were. And, as the Republican primary and the subsequent general election engage, the general election match-ups between Clinton and the GOP candidates will narrow. It’s simply not possible for a presidential nominee in this polarized climate to win by double digits – much less 15 points.

Still, for a Clinton team that has taken a load of incoming over the past fortnight, the CNN numbers have to buoy them. The CNN data point suggests that minds – especially on the Democratic side – are made up for Clinton and that nothing will change that fact. That’s something that any of the two dozen (or so) Republicans running or thinking about running for president in 2016 would kill for right about now.

Pretty much, because it means while they are fighting for the nomination among themselves, Clinton will basically be able to run a national campaign that will likely be a preview of her general election campaign. That’s going to be one heck of a head start.

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