There are a few differences. She made some tactical errors in that campaign. And Barack Obama was almost built to win a Democratic primary: A younger African-American community organizer turned Professor who was recently elected to the Senate (meaning he avoided making potentially controversial votes during Bush’s first term) in that big state next to Iowa. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else with a similar combination coming up in 2016.
However, Democrats have had a tendency to nominate people who you didn’t see coming four years earlier. In 1973, Jimmy Carter was one of several first term southern governors. In 1985, Mike Dukakis was mending fences in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion after losing the 1978 primary. In 1989, Bill Clinton was a small state governor who had given a bad speech at the DNC. In 2005, Barack Obama was a new senator who had given a fantastic speech. The argument can be made that no one could predict that these four men would become the Democratic party’s candidates for President four years later.
Historically, it’s different for Republicans, who tend to nominate national figures. Nixon was a former Vice President, who arguably beat Kennedy in the popular vote in 1960. Ford was an incumbent President, even if his ascension was through unusual circumstances. Reagan was a former big state governor who had run for president twice. Papa Bush was an incumbent Vice President. Dole was the Senate Majority Leader who had run for president twice. George W Bush was a big-state Governor, and the son of a former President. McCain was the media’s favorite Senator, and the runner up from the previous primary. Romney was the runner-up from the preceding primary.
So it makes sense to speculate about Republicans four years earlier. The party has a tendency to nominate presidential contenders who were national figures during the previous election. There isn’t one obvious front-runner this time around, but if history is any indication, the nomination will probably go to someone considered a top-tier candidate: Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Someone else may become a credible candidate as Huckabee did in 2008 and Santorum did in 2012, but they’ll probably come short of the nomination, although they might get it the next time around. It is entirely possible that were looking at this through hindsight bias. If someone else gets the nomination, pundits might argue about the ways it was so obvious in retrospect.
The Democratic party has not been kind to presidential frontrunners. Scoop Jackson was the top candidate in 1976, but he miscalculated on the importance of early primaries. Plus, after Watergate, a guy who has been in Congress for thirty years wasn’t going to be as strong during such a decidedly Anti-Washington mood. Ed Muskie was the frontrunner in 1972, but he was deemed too moderate.
Part of the reason the party nominated so many relatively obscure figures may just be a matter of luck. In December 1968, Ted Kennedy looked like the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic Party’s next presidential nomination until he was involved in a suspicious death. Gary Hart looked like the favorite for 1984, until he had a sex scandal. In 1992, the entire top-tier (1988 also-rans Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Dick Gephardt, 1988 Veep nominee/ Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell) declined to run. Oprah’s endorsement may have made the difference in the 2008 primary.
Underdogs were also often better strategists. Obama’s campaign had planned ahead for a long primary battle, and calculated the path that would net them the most delegates, while Hillary’s campaign was unaware that California wasn’t winner-take-all. John F. Kennedy’s staff invented the modern presidential campaign, in an era in which it was normal for a candidate who didn’t participate in primaries to win the convention. Jimmy Carter was one of the first to sense the importance of early primaries. George McGovern had previously been chair of the commission to reform the presidential primary process, so he was quite familiar with the rules.
Some presidential nominations were expected. Walter Mondale, the former Vice President, was the establishment favorite in 1984, even if Hart ran a surprisingly strong campaign. Al Gore was such a prohibitive favorite in 2000 that his only opposition was Bill Bradley. The 2004 presidential primary was a race between Gore’s running mate, four of the veepstakes finalists and a respected General. It was eventually won by the guy who led the polls in early 2003.
If Hillary doesn’t run, this automatically becomes another Democratic nomination which doesn’t go to the initial frontrunner. And it’s entirely possible that the next nominee will be someone who didn’t fit previous templates. Former one-term southern governors didn’t get the nomination until Jimmy Carter. Small state governors didn’t get the nomination until Bill Clinton. First term senators didn’t get the nomination until Barack Obama. By looking at resumes of the previous nominees, we may miss the next one. Big-city mayors have not received the democratic party’s presidential nomination before, but there’s no reason that would stop Julian Castro.