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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Clinton may be front-runner, but that doesn’t mean she’ll win

Hilary Clinton is officially running for president. She made the announcement Sunday via social media, pitching herself as a “champion” of “everyday Americans.”

Clinton has been considered the Democratic front-runner ever since people started speculating about the 2016 election. But being the early front-runner is no guarantee of victory. Nine months still separate us from the first primaries, leaving a lot of time for campaign stumbles. And while Clinton’s competitors may be little-known today, national campaigns have a way of creating new political stars.

If you’re looking for examples of front-runners brought down, you don’t have to look far. Hillary Clinton has played the early leader once before, in 2008, a campaign she ultimately lost to Barack Obama.

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How strong a favorite is Clinton?

Early polls are notoriously poor predictors, but the betting markets give Hillary about an 80 percent chance of victory in next year’s Democratic primary. That’s incredibly high, and yet it still means that if we ran this primary five times, she’d lose once.

Who can beat her?

Among those who’ve talked about joining the race, none has Clinton’s experience, her connections, or her name-recognition (Elizabeth Warren may come closest, but she doesn’t seem interested in running).

Sometimes, however, it’s the campaign that makes the candidate, and 12 months from now one of these lesser-known competitors may come to seem fittingly presidential. At this point in the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton’s poll numbers were below two percent. But his strength as a campaigner eventually pushed him past better-known rivals and into the presidency.

What’s more, front-runners sometimes fall down — creating opportunities for everyone else. In 1988, Gary Hart seemed the strongest candidate in the Democratic field. That is, until news of his extra-marital affair scuttled his campaign and gave Michael Dukakis his shot.

Clinton could suffer any number of crises or setbacks with her campaign. You might dismiss this scenario as unlikely, but unlikely things happen all the time. And if they shake up a campaign, front-runners can quickly lose their lead.

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So why aren’t more competitors entering the race?

It’s surprising that the primary has so far attracted so few names.

For one thing, it’s hard to win if you’re not running. If Clinton does stumble, the people most likely to benefit are those already in the race.

More generally, though, campaigns are not zero-sum. Even losing candidates can make big gains: honing their campaign skills, building national name-recognition, developing relationships with donors, and generally putting themselves in a stronger position to compete next time.

Hilary Clinton herself is a perfect example. Her loss in 2008 hasn’t ruined her political career. It has propelled it.

Ultimately, isn’t it better to be a front-runner?

Sure. Among other things, front-runners get more media attention, have more credibility with donors, and can stand above the fray as competitors fight for attention and support.

Plus, in many cases, front-runners do go on to win. Mitt Romney was the early favorite among Republicans in 2012, and despite some vicissitudes he ended up with the nomination. Likewise both Al Gore and George W. Bush started the 2000 primaries in the lead, and they ended there.

And yet, things don’t always work out this way. In 2004, Howard Dean seemed to hold the pre-primary momentum, until he was passed by John Kerry. And in 1980, Ted Kennedy was running way ahead of Jimmy Carter — until he wasn’t.

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For now, Hillary Clinton may be the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic primary, but there are few safe bets in American politics. Unlikely things are likely to happen, and when they do they can upend even the strongest candidate.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz