Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has always been the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. She’s long been viewed as the Democratic heir to President Barack Obama, eight years after Obama defeated her in the 2008 Democratic primary.
But stories from the past week have reminded Democrats about Clinton’s potential vulnerabilities as a presidential hopeful. There was the story about the donations from foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation while she was secretary of state. And then there were the details about her use of a private, not-very-secure email address as secretary.
All of which got us thinking: What happens if the unthinkable happens and Hillary Clinton doesn’t run for president? Many Democratic operatives are loathe to even consider the question. It would create a scramble at the top, and they fear it would expose what is a generally weak Democratic bench.
“Democrats don’t need to debate among ourselves,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, who supports a Clinton candidacy. “We are pretty united on the issues as most polls show. We need a strong contender to rally around in the general [election].”
“Let’s say she doesn’t run,” added Don Paulson, chairman of the Iowa Muscatine County Democrats. “Boy, that’d really open the barn door. I suppose there are people who really haven’t made about any noise about jumping in that would.”
Just in case, here’s a look at some Democratic candidates who will become instant favorites if Clinton decided to bow out — and some candidates we’d like to see in the field strictly for fun.
Joe Biden, vice president
Joe would “be Joe” — or be creepy, however you prefer to characterize it — a lot on the campaign trail. He’d also likely become the favorite absent Clinton’s entry into the race, as the closest heir to the Obama legacy.
He might not last in the front-runner status for long, however. He’s not exactly a spry chicken — he’d be 74 at the time of inauguration — and he has a tendency to stumble on the campaign trail.
Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator
Many progressive activists already want Warren to jump into the race to challenge Clinton, and she has passed Biden in many polls that gauge the Democratic temperature ahead of 2016. She’s seen as someone who would advance the Democratic Party’s populist interests, stand up to the influence of Wall Street in the party, and provide the party with the balance it needs to have a robust debate in 2016.
But it’s not clear if Warren-mania will expand outside of the liberal base of the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator
“He’d be a fun one,” Paulson said. “I think he’d be pretty popular” in Iowa, too.
At the very least, the self-described socialist would inject some interesting points of debate into the conversation. As Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, points out, he also has the potential to tap into the small-donor circle that propelled Obama’s 2008 candidacy.
Then again, Democrats are usually more concerned with electability than Republicans when nominating a candidate. Not sure if a socialist would fit the bill.
Martin O’Malley, former Maryland governor
Paulson said it’s clear O’Malley is “preparing to run for president,” since he declined to pursue an open U.S. Senate seat in a race where he’d start as the favorite.
O’Malley certainly has potential to be the “everyman’s” candidate. He sings and plays in a semi-retired Celtic rock band — many times in sleeveless shirts. But less than a year from the Iowa caucuses, no one really knows who he is. In a recent poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers, more than eight in 10 said they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion. And 0 percent — that’s right — said he’d be their first choice.
On the other hand, he has nowhere to go but up.
Kirsten Gillibrand, New York senator
Gillibrand succeeded Clinton in representing New York in the U.S. Senate, drawing comparisons upon her appointment and subsequent election to the chamber. She’s young (48), a woman, and a rising star within the party. She’s even become a favorite of the liberal base after their original misgivings about her, and has set up a political action committee aimed at promoting female candidates.
Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator
The Fix’s Chris Cillizza ranked Klobuchar eighth among potential Democratic candidates in 2013, calling her perhaps the “most talented — and effective — politician most people have never heard of.”
Since then, she’s only built upon her impressive record — her approval ratings in Minnesota still hover above 60 percent, and she boasts of the fact that two-thirds of bills she has sponsored also feature a Republican co-sponsor. She has good ties with the business community in Minnesota but is also popular among progressives, with fierce support in areas like hiking the minimum wage. She’s also pulled out some of the stops on the presidential road, making trips to Iowa, but has deferred to Clinton on this round.
Then again, she has the same problem as Gillibrand and a lot of others — she is nationally unknown.
Al Franken, Minnesota senator
Is there anything bad that could come with a former SNL cast member running for president? No. No there is not.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.