Don’t get too excited about Clinton in 2016

Rarely can an outgoing US Secretary of State have received such a celebrated farewell. Hillary Clinton’s departure from America’s top diplomatic post has been met with a storm of media comment analysing every aspect of her four year tenure.

A farewell dinner at the British ambassador’s residence was attended by UK Foreign Secretary William Hague with 80 other guests. She was toasted with Pol Roger Réserve as Hague lauded her work on global women’s rights.

But the comment has not just focused on her work as Secretary of State. Her departure has also sparked a mass of speculation about her aspirations for the presidency. Clinton herself has been careful to neither confirm nor deny whether she is contemplating a 2016 presidential bid. And thus the rumours have reached fever pitch.

A recent Iowa poll found that Clinton could get 65% of the support in the crucial first primary caucus, compared to just 14% for her next rival; Vice-President Joe Biden. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came in third with a disappointing 4%.

Then there was speculation that Clinton could even win Texas, that great Republican stalwart. This story reminds me of the predictions last year that Mitt Romney would surge to victory in several key states if he nominated Condaleeza Rice as his running mate. It might have happened, but we will never know. Romney did not nominate Rice and lost the election.

But nonetheless, she leaves office with approval ratings of 69%. While she would be the first woman president, she would hardly be the first former Secretary of State. Five of the first eight presidents first served their predecessors as Secretary of State. She is also a highly experienced campaigner, with a track record of fundraising.

But we should not get over excited about Clinton’s prospects at this stage.

Firstly, at this very early point in the campaign, opinion polling is highly problematic. Name recognition counts for more than anything else so the best known candidates tend to poll better. That will change dramatically as campaigns begin and all of the candidates start to get a higher profile.

We should not forget that at this point in the 2004 to 2008 electoral cycle, which ended in Barack Obama winning the presidency, Obama had only been a US Senator for one month. He had low voter recognition and did not poll highly until the later stages. Of course, he had not yet declared himself as a candidate at this stage so he would not even feature in most polls. The shortage of candidates drives voters to say that will support the better known candidates.

Closer to the election there will be more choice and voters will be able to make better informed decisions. The polling results, therefore, could change dramatically over the next three years.

The difficulty for Clinton is that being an establishment candidate could count against her. Voters are often attracted to new, young and exciting candidates who appear to come out of nowhere. Clinton has been a major feature on the political landscape for over 20 years, and could struggle against a newcomer. As she did in 2008.

It is simply too early to tell. Polling at this stage of the campaign is notoriously inaccurate. In a February 2007 poll, Rudy Giuliani came out as the most popular candidate across party lines. Yet he fell out of the Republican primary campaign in the early stages.

Perhaps the most decisive factor will be money; and the Clintons are formidable fundraisers. Clinton has already started raising a war chest. On Friday night, just hours after she stood down as Secretary of State, a new website – Ready for Hillary – opened and is already taking donations.

But the lessons from 2008 suggest that even finance could be a weakness in her campaign. Even before the primaries had started, at the end of 2007, fundraising was neck and neck between the Obama and Clinton campaigns with each raising just over $100m. Obama would go on to substantially outspend Clinton, and win the Democratic nomination in one if the tightest contests for decades.

Clinton would also have to keep one eye on her Republican opponent. Front runners for the nomination could include Senator Marco Rubio, suggesting that the Republicans are finally taking seriously their problem amongst Latino voters. Again, this is a factor that could eat into Clinton’s support.

But while the speculation about Clinton’s campaign is pre-emptive, the speculation itself is a boon to her campaign. Speculation gives a campaign momentum and ensures that Clinton stays firmly in the headlines.