Democrats, and the media seem giddy at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016. Polls show she would start the race in a strong position against any of her likely GOP opponents. But as I have written before, Clinton faces a number of issues in getting to the White House. Perhaps none bigger than Hillary would not be a fresh face in the White House, especially compared to her GOP counterparts.
Of the 44 American Presidents America has had they tend to fall along a fairly steady demographic lines. All but five of the 44 have been between 45 and 65 years of age. They also have largely either been war heroes, Senators or Governors of large states. If Hillary were to become President, she would buck these trends for the first time since Reagan (who was near 70 at his inauguration).
Consider the path Hillary would have taken to the White House. First Lady, Senator of New York, defeated 2008 Presidential primary candidate and former Secretary of State. It is of particular interest to note her stint as Secretary of State. Traditionally, this position has not been suited for ambitious politicians who aspire for higher office. In actuality, it has served as a dumping ground for failed Presidential candidates, John Kerry being the latest. In a way it is possible Hillary’s tenure as SofS could help her in the future. The non-political nature of the office has boosted her standing with the public. Moreover, her campaign apparatus is still ready to be reactivated and she has a donor base that rivals Obama.
But again, Hillary still runs into her generation problem. As noted by Jay Cost over at the Weekly Standard, presidential elections have followed a standard pattern. We have had 46 elections with the popular vote and the path to the Presidency tends to follow a familiar pattern (former General, Governor, or Senator). Secretary of State will be found in the resumes of those who have lost the Presidency several times. Of course this is not the only reason these candidates lost. Factors such as the economy, incumbency, etc. could also have swayed those races. But of the last several Presidential elections since 1992 we have seen younger candidates emerge as victors: Clinton over Bush in 92, Clinton over Dole in 96, Bush over Kerry in 2004, Obama over McCain in 08 and Romney in 012.
Following this pattern, Hillary would be at a significant disadvantage against any of her likely GOP challengers. Governors Christie, Jindal and Walker, Senators Paul and Rubio, even a former Senator like Santorum are younger than the former Secretary of State. In fact, all of them are at least 10 years younger than her. This would in a way upset a trend that has held since the 60s. Since that time the Democratic nominee has been on average 10 years younger than the GOP nominee.
This does not mean that the recent advantage Democrats have with younger voters will fade, or even weaken. But voters do not pull the lever just on ideology. There are numerous reasons for them to do so. Age and the way politician talk, the way they discuss the issues, and how they connect to voters on a visceral level are important. By 2016 the most notably weak issue for any Republican, gay marriage, may only be a minor issue in the primary. Hearing a Rubio or Walker talk about abortion compared to Hillary among young voters is unlikely to see them rush in mass to Clinton especially considering young voters are split on the issue.
Republicans appear increasingly unlikely to have run a re-run or next in line candidate, Most likely this is why their candidates have tended to be older compared to up and coming Democratic nominees. From 1980 to 1992 this worked for the party. In 2000, Bush was well known but he upset the next in line John McCain (who won the party nod in 2008). Republicans remember Bush’s success and their field of candidates is young and diverse along age, gender and ethnic lines.
Compared to this Hillary might look old and stale. Her donor base could not save her against Obama in 2008. Republicans are also unlikely to not fund their candidate to the hilt, especially if they are worried about the vaunted Clinton fundraising machine. Already test cases in NYC for mayor and Virginia Governor are being used as proxies to test how strong her brand is (ie. how much she helps or hurts the party).
Hillary would be unlikely to rely on the demographic groups that gave her husband the Presidency. Blue-collar and Southern whites have all but fled the party. The very same Democratic voters that rejected Hillary in 08 would have to fully embrace her again in 2016, seeing a youthful, energetic 54 year old Obama leave office and give his blessing to be replaced by a 69 year old politician. Even VP Biden is not immune to this phenomenon as he would be well over 70 if he won the party’s nod and the Presidency.
The Clinton name may be known in households across America. But being known for well over twenty years is not a ticket to the White House. And those who know her best, as in the oldest voters, are likely to be the most Republican. Younger voters may be who she needs and her age may prove an impediment to connecting with them. One thing is for sure however. If Hillary were to win the Presidency she would break two trends: the Democratic nominee being younger than the GOP nominee and being the oldest nominee to win since Reagan. Those might be two feathers in her cap she simply cannot acquire.