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Tom Richmond: The curse of the favourite

Tom_richmond Tom Richmond, a researcher at the Social Market Foundation think-tank and a columnist for Tory Radio, explains why he thinks the plight of Hillary Clinton was predictable from the very beginning of the Presidential race.

Odds of 3/1 to win the Democrat nomination, let alone the Presidency, must make it hard for Hillary Clinton to keep putting on a brave face. The contest is not lost by any means, although if the Clinton team thought that offering Barack Obama the role of Vice President was going to distract him when he leads the nomination race by over 100 delegates, they were very much mistaken.  Hillary possesses a formidable campaigning machine and has more contacts than the Yellow Pages, yet she finds herself struggling to compete with a man who has risen from relative obscurity to a beacon of hope for millions of Americans.  In order to understand the plight of the former First Lady, perhaps we should turn to the British political history books (well, those written since 2005) to see if it helps us understand what makes for a winning formula in leadership contests.   

There is no question that David Davis was the early favourite to become the next Conservative leader three years ago.  He was experienced at ministerial level, appealed to the centre-right elements of the party, had a composed manner, and seemed to have a solid grasp of political life.  His position as frontrunner, however, was short-lived.  All of a sudden, one mediocre speech at the party conference and some lacklustre media performances saw him slip behind his opponent; a position from which he never recovered.  The youthful, energetic and charismatic David Cameron quietly moved into the lead and ended up comfortably winning the leadership vote by a margin of two to one.

Would the early favourite fare any better in the Labour leadership contest in 2007? Well, I say ‘contest’ – more like a political charade accompanied by a few grumbling Left-wingers.  John McDonnell and Michael Meacher fell by the wayside and David Miliband protested that he had always supported Gordon Brown’s leadership bid (although if memory serves me correctly, it took him quite a while to recall this).  Gordon Brown competed against himself for the leadership of the Labour Party and won what must have been the most relaxing victory in modern British politics.

And then came Clegg - but only just.  Many Lib Dems were so convinced that Nick Clegg was the rightful heir to the yellow throne that he was pestered by the media at the party conference well before Ming had actually resigned / been pushed out / been stabbed in the back (delete as applicable).  Once Ming was out of the picture, Clegg was installed as odds-on favourite and one by one his possible rivals ruled themselves out until it was a straight fight between Clegg and Chris Huhne, a quiet and unassuming character who clearly wasn’t blessed with same dynamism as Clegg.  However, what he lacked in vitality he most certainly made up for with his cool, calm and collected media appearances.  Clegg’s eventual triumph by a mere 511 votes out of 41,000 showed that he had failed to convince the party why he was the right man for the job.

Somewhat surprisingly, there are a number of parallels that can be drawn between the victors in these contests.  The ability to unite a party during a leadership battle is something that David Cameron and Gordon Brown had and Nick Clegg didn’t.  The considerable momentum gained by the Conservatives and Labour after their respective leadership contests is something that Mr Clegg can only dream of.  Perceptions of confidence and competence are also crucial.  David Cameron has always had an approachable style with the media and was a ‘fresh face’ to the public.  Gordon Brown was hardly a fresh face but was bolstered by many people believing that he had done a good job of running the economy (how times have changed) and instead focussed on setting out his ‘vision’ after becoming party leader and enjoyed an extended honeymoon period on the back of this.   

A united party, self-assuredness and either a record of competence or a clean slate – these are the factors that have invariably played on the minds of voters in these leadership elections.  So how does Hillary compare?  A united party remains a pipedream for Hillary Clinton, as she represents one of the most divisive characters in American politics.  Her ability to polarise Democrats as well as independents and Republicans is quite remarkable.  In terms of confidence, she has never had any problems in front of the camera but the strength and poise of Barack Obama has given him the edge.  With regard to competence, her time as First Lady undoubtedly gave her considerable expertise in the operations of the White House but her involvement in the spectacular failure that was Bill Clinton’s health care reform plan in 1993 has never left her side.  ‘Experience’ can be a double-edged sword.  Remember that the slightest chink in voters’ perceptions of Obama’s competence over the NAFTA agreement cost him dearly in the Ohio primaries.

Hillary Clinton is in a difficult, although not necessarily irretrievable, situation but is it really that surprising?  The ‘Curse Of The Favourite’ has struck several times in recent years.  When you are out in front and people know who you are, all eyes are focussed on you, every move you make is analysed then re-analysed, every speech you make is carefully picked through by your opponents, and - most importantly - every mistake you make is magnified a hundred times.  If you set off in front there is only one way to go, and that’s backwards.  Whoever wins the Democrat nomination is going to have to carry the same burden in the race for the White House.  Whatever the betting markets say, John McCain will start the Presidential contest exactly where he wants to be – in second place.


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