Time in the 2016 Democratic presidential race is rightly understood as "BHD" and "AHD". As in, "Before Hillary's Decision" and "After Hillary's Decision."
That's because how the race plays out depends heavily on what the former New York Senator, First Lady and Secretary of State decides she wants to do with her political future.
With Clinton in the race, she is immediately a very clear frontrunner and many of the people currently thinking about running don't. (That doesn't mean, however, that Clinton has an uncontested fight for the nomination; some people -- like Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley -- almost have to run in 2016 due to timing issues.)
Without Clinton in the race, the 2016 contest will be the most wide open nomination fight for Democrats since 1992 or 1988. (In 2008, Clinton's presence in the race made it, seemingly, less wide open -- although Barack Obama proved politics is an unpredictable endeavor.)
Clinton has been clearly unclear when asked about her plans in recent months -- emphasizing that she simply isn't thinking about what's next just yet. "I've said I really don't believe that that's something I will do again," Clinton told Barbara Walters in December about a run for the nation's top office. (It's not clear how her concussion and subsequent blood clot will influence that decision -- if at all.)
Because Clinton is the prime mover in the race, she may not have years to make up her mind on running. As long as we are living in "BHD" days, it will be very tough for the likes of O'Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and even Vice President Joe Biden to rally the support among donors and activists that they will need if they want to run and win. Everyone in the Democratic world -- or at least the vast majority -- will wait to see what Hillary does before making up their own minds.
What IS clear: Clinton is an even stronger frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2016 than she was in 2008. (That's probably a good thing for her given how that last race turned out.) Judging by the polling out there, she is the heaviest favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee since Al Gore in 2000 and, if you leave out sitting vice presidents, Hillary may well be the biggest favorite for the nomination in the post-World War II era.
Given that, it's fair to read our rankings of the 10 candidates most likely to wind up as the Democratic nominee in 2016 as Hillary and then everyone else. She is the top tier. Plain and simple.
Agree with our picks? Disagree? The comments section awaits. And don't forget to check out our rankings of the top 10 2016 Republicans here.
To the Line!
10. Elizabeth Warren: Sure, the freshman Massachusetts senator has kept a low profile since joining the upper chamber. But the immense enthusiasm she stoked among liberals last fall and her ability to raise massive sums of money make her a potential candidate to watch. Unlike many of the other names on this list, Warren hasn't been making the kind of overt moves toward a national bid that typically precede a White House bid. But she hasn't been on the national stage long, either. The next year and a half will say a lot about whether Warren is even toying with a bid for higher office. If she even hints at running, she moves way up the Line.
9. Brian Schweitzer: Count the former Montana governor among those who are very clearly leaning toward running for president. There has been some talk that Schweitzer could run for Senate, either against Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in a primary in 2014 or if Baucus opts to retire. But Schweitzer makes clear he’s got his eyes on another prize. Schweitzer may well be the most colorful character on this list, from his bolo ties to his hail-fellow-well-met attitude to the fact that he uses a branding iron to punctuate his routine vetoes. But as a red-state governor is strongly supportive of gun rights (see his recent comment after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.) and may not have exactly what the liberal base is looking for.
8. Kirsten Gillibrand: Outside of New York, not a lot of people know who Gillibrand is. But among her constituents in the Empire State, she's quite popular. Gillibrand is also strong fundraiser who has offered her financial might to other candidates. If Clinton doesn't run there will be room in the field for a prominent female candidate. Gillibrand could be that candidate.
7. Janet Napolitano: We were caught by surprise when we read our WaPo colleague Karen Tumulty's report that the former Arizona governor and current head of the Department of Homeland Security was interested in running for president. Napolitano has an incredibly impressive resume and a demonstrated appeal in a Republican-leaning state. Raising the sort of money that she would need to be a viable candidate would be a major challenge, however.
6. Mark Warner: The Virginia senator surprised many by passing on a presidential run in 2008, instead running for an open Senate seat and cruising to a huge win. He’s got a reelection campaign to worry about in 2014, but he remains very popular in the Commonwealth and isn’t considered a top GOP target. His success as both governor and senator in a swing state bordering Washington, D.C., makes him a hot commodity in the nation’s capital, but we have yet to see the understated Warner really make a big move on the national stage. Plus, do his centrist credential fit a Democratic primary electorate?
5. Deval Patrick: The Massachusetts governor's impressive Democratic National Convention speech put him on the radar of most anyone who wasn't already thinking of him as a potential White House contender. He's a close ally of the president and one the country's most prominent African American politicians. He is also going to be be looking for something to do after he wraps up his second term as governor next year.
4. Martin O’Malley: The Maryland governor is term-limited in 2014, which means he will have plenty of time to wrap up his day job and turn attention to what many expect will be a run for the presidency. The former Baltimore mayor checks a lot of boxes on the presidential scorecard: He looks the part, is a disciplined messenger, has been chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, and has been a successful governor. He's also got the political know-how, having served as an advance man in Iowa for Gary Hart's presidential bids (O'Malley is also the basis for a character on "The Wire".) The question is whether he has that "wow factor" that makes a candidate a player on the national stage. The jury on that is still out.
3. Andrew Cuomo: Even after the New York governor's polling numbers took a dip following his signing of some tough new gun control laws, he remains among the country's most popular governors. And he comes from a populous state with a deep donor pool. Nationally, Cuomo's won plaudits from the left for shepherding a law legalizing gay marriage and spearheading other liberal policies. But not all liberals are Cuomo fans. His refusal to take a stand against a state legislative power sharing arrangement with Republicans irked some commentators who hold sway on the left. All that said, he'd be a very formidable White House contender. If Biden and Clinton both pass, he'd have an early leg up on the rest of the field.
2. Joe Biden: Biden is ranked this high because 1) he’s a sitting vice president, which makes him instantly formidable and 2) he seems likely to run. But just because Biden’s at No. 2 doesn’t mean he’s got great odds. The vice president has run for president twice and fared very poorly each time, so expectations will be tempered by that. But he’s certainly done himself a lot of good serving as Obama’s lead negotiator on some big issues in recent months, and he looks like a very serious contender.
1. Hillary Clinton: If she runs, she is the clear favorite, If she doesn't, she's the most coveted endorser in the race. It's hard to imagine her making clear which way she's headed until after the 2014 midterms. But, the longer Clinton waits, the more antsy the people ranked below her on this Line get since the contest can't really start in earnest until we know what she's planning.