Every passing week makes one thing abundantly clear: Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
This week's evidence came in the form of two polls -- conducted by NBC and Marist College -- of Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. In Iowa, Clinton led Vice President Joe Biden 70 percent to 20 percent. In New Hampshire, Clinton led Biden by an even wider 74 percent to 18 percent. (That's not to pick on Biden; he was the strongest of Clinton's possible challengers.) Clinton's approval ratings in those polls are stratospheric; 89 percent of Iowa Democrats have a favorable opinion of her while 94(!) percent of New Hampshire Democrats say the same.
"Hillary Clinton -- if she runs -- is going to have a cakewalk to the Democratic nomination, no matter how many political observers might want to see a race," wrote NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann. "She’s going to win the Democratic nomination, whether she faces actual primary opposition or not."
Yup. And yet, it's a near certainty that Clinton will face some sort -- or sorts -- of primary opposition. Which begs the question: Why?
To answer that, it's important to remember that not everyone runs for president to win. Some run to promote a cause or a set of beliefs. Others run because timing dictates they have to. Still others run in hopes of improving their chances of either winding up on the ticket alongside Clinton or with a prominent spot in her Administration.
When it comes to 2016, the largest group of potential challengers to Clinton come from the "cause" category. Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders seems intent on running, largely to push his belief in the need for serious campaign finance reform. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is circling the race, hoping to provide a liberal alternative -- and a more populist perspective -- to the contest. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is term limited out as governor at the end of this year and undoubtedly thinks a credible run for president might bolster his chances of a spot in a Clinton Administration. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer just seems to want back into the political game and, like Dean and Sanders, thinks there is room for a populist messenger to make a little noise in the field. (He's right.)
Below are my rankings of the 2016 field. Remember that if Clinton runs, she wins.
Tier 1 (The Clinton wing)
* Hillary Clinton: Still think she hasn't made up her mind about running? Check out what Clinton told Charlie Rose in an interview this week: "We have to make a campaign about what we would do. You have to run a very specific campaign that talks about the changes you want to make in order to tackle growth, which is the handmaiden of inequality." Soooo....she is running.
Tier 2 (If she doesn't run, these are the frontrunners)
* Joe Biden: The Vice President badly wants to run. Just look at his travel schedule, which this week included a keynote address at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of liberal online activists. And, his allies insist that his decision on the race has nothing to do with what Clinton decides. But Biden didn't get this far in politics by being dumb; a race against Clinton is damn close to unwinnable for him -- and he knows it. If Clinton for some reason decides not to run, Biden is in the next day.
* Martin O'Malley: The Maryland governor is getting some nice press in early primary states. And he is working those states like no one else on the Democratic field. Because O'Malley can't really afford to wait four (or eight) years to run, I expect him to be in the race no matter what Clinton does. But, even his most optimistic supporters would have to see that bid as a chance for him to improve his potential as a vice presidential pick for Clinton.
* Elizabeth Warren: The Massachusetts Senator is the only person who could credibly mount a challenge to Clinton. But, she's not going to do it. While Warren is on the record saying she will serve out her six year Senate term, which expires in 2018, I am hard-pressed to see how she would pass up a run if Clinton took a pass.
Tier 3 (Maybe running. But not winning)
* Howard Dean: Dean has the presidential bug. In 2004, he looked like he was going to be the Democratic presidential nominee -- until people started voting. In 2013, Dean predicted Clinton would have a primary opponent and he may see himself as that person.
* Bernie Sanders: Of everyone not named Clinton (or O'Malley) on this list, the Vermont Socialist Senator is doing the most to get ready for a presidential bid. No one -- including Sanders -- thinks he will win but his fiery style and liberal positions could make things uncomfortable for Clinton.
* Brian Schweitzer: Don't say I didn't warn you about Schweitzer's tendency to stray off message. The former Montana governor proved he isn't yet ready for primetime in a recent interview with National Journal's Marin Cogan, making impolitic comments about California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor. Schweitzer apologized but the damage was done. Schweitzer effectively doused any momentum he had built for a presidential bid.
Tier 4 (The four or eight more years crowd)
* Andrew Cuomo: The New York Governor has a presidential bid in him but it's not going to be in 2016. If anything, he has moved further away from a bid rather than closer to one as 2016 has drawn closer. In 2020, Cuomo will be 62 -- right in the sweet spot when it comes to presidential bids. In 2024, he would be 68, the same age Hillary Clinton will be if she is elected in 2016.
* Kirsten Gillibrand: Like Cuomo, Gillibrand is an ambitious New Yorker who almost certainly will run for president at some point in the future. At age 47, she has plenty of time to wait and, as she has done over the past few years, use her perch in the Senate to build her liberal resume for an eventual national bid.
* Deval Patrick: Patrick raised some eyebrows a few months back when he had this to say about Clinton's coronation as the Democratic nominee: "She's an enormously capable candidate and leader. But I do worry about the inevitability thing, because I think it's off-putting to the average...voter." It seems very unlikely that the Massachusetts governor will take the plunge against Clinton but his resume in the Bay State could make for an intriguing profile in four or even eight years.