Hillary Vs. History

Clinton's real challenge is overcoming America's presidential predilections.

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the media during a press conference with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, unseen, at the Foreign Ministry in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Dec. 3, 2012.

Daily, it seems we're met with commentary expounding former Secretary of State (Senator and First Lady) Hillary Clinton's 2016 electoral invincibility. While a few pieces raise questions about her candidate appeal and the Democratic Party's likelihood of a coronation, they do not address Clinton's real challenge: history.

The history of parties and elections. The institutional history of the presidency. Both suggest Clinton has long odds before her. She may well beat the odds – politics does surprise – but don't think for a second that she's on some glide path to the Oval Office. The only candidate to win a third presidential term for his party since 1952 was George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has not only built a well-known forecasting model premised on this electoral restlessness with the "in-party" ("Time for Change"), but last year, he also noted that "growing partisan polarization is resulting in a decreased advantage for candidates favored by election fundamentals including first term incumbents." In short, even if President Obama's job approval rating is high and the economy is strong as he departs from office, his successor, the Democratic nominee, will face a substantial electoral headwind.

Political scientist Helmut Norpoth has further explored the "autoregressive" tendency in presidential elections, meaning: (1) elections are not independent events like coin tosses, they're related to one another, and (2) "the competitive nature of the electoral struggle [in a balanced two-party system] guarantees that popular support for the winning party will gravitate back towards a 50-50 division."

In other words, while the timing is somewhat uncertain, "a reversal of electoral fortunes" can be relied upon to happen.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

And most important for gauging Clinton's chances, Norpoth found that since 1860, "the modal win streak [for a party] is just two elections." Norpoth published this research in 1995, meaning that the last five elections, which only bolster this modal "party win streak" number, were omitted from his analysis.

Put bluntly, no matter the popularity of the nominee, history's against the Democrats retaining the White House in 2016.

History's also against a woman securing the presidency. I used to be sanguine about a woman's chances of becoming president. I used to think "tough, but doable."

Heck, I even wanted to be president when I was six years old, reading "Girls Can Be Anything" and seeing the picture of a girl giving a speech from behind a podium with the presidential seal on it, in front of Air Force One, on the tarmac, before a small crowd.

Now, after not only watching the sexist media take-down of two women politicians vying for a position in the executive branch in 2008, but also delving deeply into the country's cultural constructions of the presidency and women, I'm highly skeptical of any woman's ability to transcend such a stacked deck anytime soon.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is There a Republican 'War on Women'?]

Political scientist Joseph Uscinski showed that "portrayals of female characters in popular cinema, regardless of whether those characters hold high office or not, perpetuate gendered stereotypes and propagate the notion that women are 'unsafe' choices to hold office." More to the point, he concluded that in films "females are rarely in positions of true independent power, and when they are, they are often depicted in an overtly sexual way or as reliant on males ... it is little wonder that a female has not won the presidency." If we can't imagine a fictional woman president, what's the likelihood of a real woman becoming one?

When it comes to the presidency, it's not a glass ceiling that a woman must break through, but a coffin lid nailed shut, six feet under.

Hillary's a formidable woman. She has endured all manner of personal and political trials. She has achieved much. She may well make history. But to do so, she has to break history – twice.

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