The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run for president? Chaos.

Conventional wisdom -- and even some unconventional wisdom -- dictates that Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2016.

A universe of super PACs and other organizations has been built  -- and staffed by former Clinton operatives -- to prepare the way for Hillary 2016. (To understand how fully formed these efforts are, make sure to read Mark Halperin's terrific piece in Time this week.)

And yet, running through all of these preparations is a current of uncertainty about whether the former first lady, senator and top diplomat will, you know, actually run. The thinking is that Clinton would never let efforts this extensive go forward if she, in her heart of hearts, wasn't planning to run. But that, like most of what we think we know about Clinton and her plans, is based not on facts but on interpretation. Clinton has been remarkably reticent about the possibility of running, although -- it's worth noting -- she has never ruled out a bid.

One thing that everyone -- those who want Clinton to run and those who don't -- agrees on is that she has simply not made up her mind on the race yet and likely won't for some time. (Our guess for an announcement about her future? Around this time next year.) So, what happens if she decides not to run? In a word: Chaos. For three reasons:

1. There is a panoply of ambitious Democrats who watched Barack Obama leapfrog them in 2008 and won't want to miss their opportunity this time around.

2. If Clinton announced on March 1, 2015, there would only be 10 months before the calendar turned to 2016. Given how much her candidacy -- or at least her decision-making about her candidacy -- has and will continue to freeze the field, there would be a mad scramble for donors, activists and key consultants in early states the likes of which we haven't seen in modern presidential history.

3. There is no obvious front-runner in a Clinton-less field. Vice President Biden would be the nominal favorite for the nomination, but you could also make a credible case for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or even New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to occupy that space.

One other impact of Clinton taking a pass on the race: It would strengthen Republicans' chances of winning the White House while simultaneously changing the nature of the discussion in the GOP primary. If Clinton runs, one of the narratives of the GOP race will be which of the Republican candidates is best positioned to beat her. (Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is already making that argument -- to decidedly mixed results.)  At the same time, the lack of a Clinton-level figure on the Democratic side would mean that the general election would start as essentially a toss-up.

To be clear, we still expect Hillary Clinton to run. But, if she doesn't, the Democratic race for the nomination in 2016 could be one for the ages.

Below we rank the 10 candidates considered to have some possibility of either running for or winning the Democratic nomination in two years. We split the candidates into four tiers; they are listed alphabetically within each tier.

First tier (The Clinton wing)

* Hillary Clinton: She is the biggest front-runner the Democratic Party has ever seen. If she runs, she (almost certainly) wins.

Second tier (If she says no, then....)

* Joe Biden: The vice president wants to run. But he knows that he would start way, way, way behind Clinton and might never be able to make the race close. On the other hand, if Clinton passes, Biden is in -- if not the next day, sometime shortly thereafter. He would almost certainly run as the logical heir to the Obama coalition within the party, although it remains to be seen whether he could actually bring that group together again.

* Martin O'Malley: The Maryland governor makes the second tier because he is the most credible candidate who will most likely run even if the 2016 field includes Clinton. Why? Simple. O'Malley is term-limited out of office at the end of the year with no obvious next step other than running for president. He can't afford to wait until 2020 or maybe even 2024 to run because by that point he will be a guy who no one even remembers was the governor of Maryland.

* Brian Schweitzer: The former Montana governor wants to run for president. While he (sort of) demurs publicly, his statements all have a sort of  wink-wink-nudge-nudge-you-know-what-I-am-saying-ness to them. While most Democrats in Washington roll their eyes at the idea of a Schweitzer bid, he is a gifted and charismatic communicator.

Third tier (Not interested. But...)

* Andrew Cuomo: As Maggie Haberman and Edward Isaac-Dovere laid out in a piece on Cuomo in late 2013, the New York governor's lack of interest in the race, which was once regarded as a sort of coyness he would ultimately shrug off, is now seen as a sign that he doesn't really want to run. We continue to believe that a race without Clinton would be too hard for the ambitious Cuomo to resist, however.

* Kirsten Gillibrand: When we dedicated a chapter of "The Gospel According to The Fix" -- you didn't know we wrote a book? -- to the junior senator from New York as a potential "next Hillary," we came in for some polite ribbing from the political community. A few years later, Gillibrand has emerged as a rising star in the party -- a reputation built on her fundraising prowess and her legislative efforts on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Here's us congratulating ourselves on that Gillibrand prediction:

* Deval Patrick: After saying for years that he wasn't interested in running for president, the Massachusetts governor opened the door to the possibility last month. “That’s a decision I have to make along with my wife of 30 years, and she’s a tough one to convince,” Patrick told Politico in what is your classic open-the-door-a-crack statement. As then-Sen. Obama showed in 2008, a candidate who can unify the African American vote and win a large chunk of white liberals is a potent force in a Democratic primary.

* Elizabeth Warren: Of all nine candidates on this list who aren't Hillary Clinton, the Massachusetts senator would have the most viable path to beating the former secretary of state. A hero among liberals, who don't love Clinton and never will, Warren is the sort of anti-corporatist, anti-Wall Street populist that many Democrats thought they were getting with Obama. Like Gillibrand, Warren has signed a letter urging Clinton to run for president. But it would be hard for Warren to resist a race in a Clinton-less field.

Fourth tier (Just. Not. Happening.)

* Cory Booker: The Newark-mayor-turned-senator has a bright political future. But he remains relatively raw, politically-speaking, and is plenty young enough to wait a few elections before making his (inevitable) presidential run.

* Bernie Sanders: In an interview with The Nation earlier this month, the self-avowed socialist senator made clear he is dead serious about running for president. "I am prepared to run for president of the United States," Sanders said. "I don’t believe that I am the only person out there who can fight this fight, but I am certainly prepared to look seriously at that race." A Sanders candidacy would  be fascinating if ultimately doomed to the margins of the race.