The 1992 Democratic primary for President had a long-lasting impact on American politics. The nomination of Bill Clinton was a watershed moment, which lives on with Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016.
A sometimes overlooked point is that Mr. Clinton entered the race in October, 1991 -- “late,” according to many in politics -- after dawdling for much of that year. But he won the White House nonetheless.
The contours of the 2016 president race suggest we may see another candidate enter the Democratic primary by October. And if you care about the environment, clean energy and climate change, there may be no better candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination than Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Sure, this is a long shot, but Inslee has a legitimate pathway to the presidency. And if Hillary Clinton is indicted as part of the FBI investigation into her having classified documents on her private server, the pathway would become even clearer. Here’s how he could do it:
In Iowa, where the nomination process begins, there are about 1,784 precincts in 99 counties. Candidates are awarded a share of delegates roughly proportionate to their election results -- candidates who muster at least 15 percent of the precinct votes receive delegates. So it’s better to perform well in fewer precincts than have a middling performance statewide. By focusing on the roughly 33 counties where the majority of Iowa’s Democratic voters live, Inslee would be able to concentrate resources.
While media is important in any campaign, the ground game is even more important in Iowa. This puts a premium not on money, but on good organizing staff and the ability to recruit motivated, smart volunteers. In caucuses, where you have to slog through the Iowa winter night to hang out in a school gym for about two hours, only the most motivated supporters will show.
Who is going to turn out in that weather to see Inslee? Voters for whom the environment and climate change are the most important issues. They will come from college campuses -- both students and professors -- from farms, and from cities. They will come in numbers above the 15 percent threshold needed to demonstrate significant support.
Inslee, after all, is one of America’s long-time leading elected voices on climate change and environmental stewardship. He wrote Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy in 2008 before the effects of climate change were so clear. There is no prominent environmental voice in this Democratic field. Hillary Clinton won’t even take a position on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Inslee doesn’t even have to win in Iowa. He will be a success if he can register as a credible third-place finisher, or better.
In New Hampshire, the first primary and the next big test in the nomination process, the “golden ring” is not actually winning. It’s media attention. Sure, winning is great -- it gets you about 10-15 delegates to the national convention, where about 4,000 delegates are counted -- but in each of the last three open primaries, a second place winner in New Hampshire went on to be elected president: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Each of them used the media during and following New Hampshire to shape a broader storyline. Clinton was “the comeback kid” for finishing second. Bush blitzed McCain out of New Hampshire, suggesting he had fathered an African American daughter. Barack Obama used the media attention to launch the “Yes we can” theme.
Governor Inslee can use the media attention in New Hampshire to shine a light on climate change and environmental issues, changing the course of our national dialog in a way that simply will not happen absent his participation.
In short, Inslee has the time. It’s still six weeks until October when Bill Clinton announced. He can put together a strong team in a short amount of time to build upon the natural interest among environmental voters, particularly young voters.
Inslee has the ground game. Political strategist Zach Silk ran the gay marriage initiative and the background check campaign. He could be convinced to take this on. The timing would also work well for longtime environmental operatives like Ed Zuckerman and John Wyble, both with great field organizing skills and national reputations, and who are allies of the governor’s.
And Inslee has the message: No issue mobilizes young volunteers like environmental activism. There is a natural constituency that will show up to volunteer on this issue from across the country.
Inslee can also raise the money. He has one of the country’s best fundraisers in Tracy Newman, and has close ties to national environmental donors who are, so far, largely on the sidelines. Environmental donors will see this opportunity to elevate the issue into the national debate in a way that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
If Inslee runs and loses, he can always return home for the meat of the legislative session and his re-election campaign. While some Democrats grumble over the lack of progress in Olympia, Democratic and independent voters in Puget Sound would take tremendous pride in watching Washington State’s governor help define the national debate. In fact, finding traction on environmental policy in the national media over the next 4-5 months will likely help build support for his environmental agenda in Olympia. You know every Olympia legislator will be watching those debates and reading those headlines.
However, if Inslee runs and ignites a conversation, he could win, or become a contender for the vice presidential nomination. He could get America talking about how we can build jobs by building a working economy driven by clean energy and a reduction in carbon emissions.
Running for office is never easy, and the presidency is particularly tough. But there is a window here, Governor, to catapult your life’s work on to the national stage in a way no one has done for 15 years. Without your leadership now, it may be another 15 years, or longer, before a national figure has the courage to lead on this issue like you can today.
Ignite this conversation, Governor.