Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent dip in the polls has Democrats taking a fresh look at their choices for presidential nominees and finding that the party doesn’t have any other A-list contenders.
Beyond Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic presidential field includes two with loose affiliations to the party and another who is a virtual unknown on the national stage. There is a dearth of Democrats even testing the waters for a run, and party officials are at a loss to point to anybody on the Democratic bench who would be capable of entering the race late and mounting a viable campaign.
In the early-voting state of South Carolina, Democratic Party State Executive Committee member Ed Harley said he wasn’t worried about Mrs. Clinton’s campaign collapsing. But if it did, he said, the party would have to turn to its second-tier candidates.
“You probably would have to go to the next level,” he said, adding that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley might be able to step up to fill the void.
Mr. Harley was at a loss to name another Democrat who would rise to the occasion or who would be ready to start a run.
“I would have no idea,” he said. “They’re out there. I don’t know, maybe they are waiting for a reason [to run] or maybe they’re waiting for the right time to make their move.
“If you’re a candidate and you stick your nose up there to run and you don’t have any support, you’re just making a bad mistake,” Mr. Harley said.
Mr. O’Malley, who undertook a monthslong run-up to the campaign before announcing his candidacy a week ago, has struggled to register in the polls. A recent survey found that three-quarters of Americans don’t know enough about Mr. O’Malley to form an opinion about him.
A Fox News poll released last week showed Mr. O’Malley with 4 percent support nationally, trailing Mrs. Clinton with 57 percent, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont with 11 percent and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who hasn’t announced a run, with 8 percent.
The fourth-place finish was a marked improvement for Mr. O’Malley, who previously was stuck at 1 percent or 2 percent in most polls.
Mr. Sanders, who proudly calls himself a socialist, is not a member of the Democratic Party but is running for its nomination. The longest-serving independent in Congress, Mr. Sanders has caucused with Democrats but never registered as one.
He has run far to the left of Mrs. Clinton with encouragement from liberal activists, but the party establishment hasn’t gotten behind him.
The Democratic National Committee has said that its rules do not require Mr. Sanders to be a member of the party to win the nomination. He has to have only enough Democratic support to win the nomination.
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is the latest Democrat to enter the race, but he is a relative newcomer to the party. He served as a Republican in the U.S. Senate, left the party to become an independent and win the governor’s race and later switched to the Democratic Party.
He is garnering about 1 percent in the polls.
Mr. Chafee launched his presidential campaign Thursday with a quixotic “internationalist” agenda that included converting the United States to the metric system.
In the few days that Mr. Chafee has been in the race, he has been more aggressive than any other rivals of Mrs. Clinton, including citing her “long record going back over decades of questionable ethical practices.”
On Sunday, Mr. Chaffee said Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state, sabotaged the U.S. relationship with Russia. He said the U.S. doesn’t need to impose more sanctions against Russia but must avoid the kinds of goofs that tarnished Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat.
“Stop making the mistakes that Secretary Clinton made,” Mr. Chaffee said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“That was a big mistake when we were trying to restart our relationship with Russia, Secretary Clinton presented the foreign minister with a symbolic gesture and they got the Russian word wrong,” he said. “It’s those types of mistakes that set back a relationship. Those symbolic mistakes.”
He was referring to Mrs. Clinton’s 2009 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when she presented him with a small green box tied with a ribbon. Inside was a red button emblazoned with the Russian word “peregruzka,” which she mistakenly thought was the word for “reset.”
“You got it wrong,” Mr. Lavrov said at the time. “It should be ‘perezagruzka.’ This says ‘peregruzka,’ which means ‘overcharged.’”
Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at American University whose research focuses on political ambition, said the lack of competition for Mrs. Clinton isn’t because the Democratic Party has a lack of talent.
“I think that what we are seeing is a generally strong impression that Hillary Clinton will win the nomination and so candidates who in a different cycle might be inclined to throw their hats into the ring are not interested in competing against her this time around,” she said. “They don’t think that they could win. They don’t think that they could defeat her and, quite frankly, a lot of them think that she is an incredibly strong candidate for the general election, so there is no reason to compete with her either.”
Ken Goldstein, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco, agreed.
He said that nearly the entire stable of Democratic leaders gave way to Mrs. Clinton, including Mr. Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
“If she was not in the contest, I think you would see a whole bunch of candidates in equal quality — if not in absolute quantity — to the GOP field,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton remains the all-but-inevitable Democratic nominee, with a huge lead in the polls and a massive advantage in the money race.
Still, Democrats began to re-examine their options after a CNN/ORC poll released last week showed that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is not immune to the barrage of news reports questioning her ethical standards.
The favorability of the former first lady, senator and secretary of state dropped to 46 percent from 53 percent in March. Half of Americans in the poll viewed her unfavorably — her lowest score in 14 years.
The same poll found that just 42 percent of voters think Mrs. Clinton is honest and trustworthy, compared with 57 percent who say she is not.
What’s more, the poll showed that Mrs. Clinton was in a statistical dead heat with three potential Republican rivals: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The dip in the polls follows continuing questions about Mrs. Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email account for official business while serving as secretary of state.
Her campaign also has had to contend with revelations about potential conflicts of interest — and accusations of pay-to-play schemes — involving foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation and six-figure speaking fees paid to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, by foreign entities while she was secretary of state.
Neither Mrs. Clinton nor the Democratic establishment would let the polls rattle them.
“I take all of these public polls with a grain of salt,” longtime Clinton adviser Joel Benenson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when the survey was released. “There’s a lot of frustration with politicians generally.”