If the Democrats take one thing away from last year’s midterm elections, it should be that they cannot rely on momentum to win seats. My home state of Maryland makes a strong case. The majority of the population is registered Democrat, and Martin O’Malley, the previous Democratic governor, enjoyed high approval ratings in a relatively prosperous economy. But in the midterm election cycle, Democratic voters overwhelmingly stayed home and Republican Larry Hogan took the governorship. A lack of mobilization was the bane of the Democratic Party — it took its votes for granted.
The presidential election of 2016 now looms near. And while figures within the Republican Party — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, among others — busy themselves with building reputations and getting their names in the news, loud Democratic voices are few and far between. That is, except for one. Hillary Clinton is the candidate who many in the Democratic Party know, expect and want. While polls for Republican candidates show Jeb Bush with a lead of only 7 percentage points, polls for their Democratic counterparts show Clinton with a lead upwards of 48 points. In terms of popularity, no Democratic candidate can compare. Vice President Joe Biden is known more for his quirky frankness than for any exceptional political conviction. O’Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are mostly only known in their home states. No one in the Democratic Party has done anything to set themselves apart from the crowd recently.
For whatever controversy prominent Republicans may stir — particularly around provocative issues like abortion, contraception and the anti-vaccination movement — their names are at least already out there. Potential Democratic candidates,
oddly silent through these controversies, can hardly say the same. And with no Democrat willing to make a bold political move until Clinton does, the primaries will ultimately boil down to who can compare most to her. Until more Democrats make themselves heard on the issues of the day, the conversation about Democrats will inevitably remain on her.
Clinton is, of course, a brilliant stateswoman, savvy diplomat and seasoned politician. She is perhaps the best-known name in all of Washington, D.C., right now with the exception of the president. But Democratic voters risk letting her reputation idly dictate the race for them — particularly young Democratic voters with traditionally low turnout and a growing streak of political nihilism. In Maryland, Democratic voters stayed at home, expecting that O’Malley’s credentials would speak for themselves. And as long as Clinton stands unchallenged in popularity, Democrats look uninspired, toothless and deferential in comparison to their firebrand red counterparts, as they did in Maryland.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 11 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected]