What if Hillary Clinton decides not to run?
But surely she will?
Probably. But not certainly.
In 2013, eight new super PACs incorporated the former secretary of state's name in their names, including Ready for Hillary, which has already raised $4 million. Former Clinton aides run an effort to "Correct the Record" on her behalf, while the super PAC that helped keep President Obama in the White House has now turned into a pro-Hillary shop.
It's no surprise Clinton's inner circle was depicted as its own solar system on the cover of The New York Times magazine. For Democrats who haven’t already landed on “Planet Hillary.” the goal is to get there fast.
But imagine a different universe in which Clinton doesn't run. It may now seem unlikely, but it is possible. And many believe her decision to duck out after such a long period of will-she? won’t-she? would turn Democratic politics upside down.
"She might not," said Dee Dee Myers, who served as President Clinton’s press secretary. "Then all hell will break loose."
Keeping every other Democratic candidate waiting favors Clinton. Until she declares her intentions, every other Dem wannabe is starved of funds, for why would any donor spend even a dime on a candidate who surely cannot beat Clinton, if she goes for it.
It is significant that no one Newsweek spoke to felt like a Clinton run was a done deal, yet the Clinton machine continues to build, while elsewhere in the party there is little preparation for an alternative. "The people closest to her are the ones who are most emphatic that she hasn't made a decision yet and that not running is an option," Myers said. "So I think there's some thought given to [the possibility she won't run], but there's more thought given to 'How do we get in a good position to be part of the juggernaut?'"
Everyone agrees that if Clinton doesn't run, the nomination will be up for grabs, a state of affairs that could draw a huge number of Democratic candidates into the race with the prospect of ending up on top -- or at least with the vice presidential slot.
Vice President Joe Biden is expected to lead the pack, with an advantage largely based on the name recognition and fundraising base that comes with being No. 2 for eight years. But he wouldn't clear the field.
"There may be reasons I don't run, but there's no obvious reason for me why I think I should not run," said the candid and ever-ambitious Biden. “It doesn't mean I'm the only guy that can do it, but if no one else I think can and I think I can, then I will. If I don't I won't."
There are Democratic governors eager for a promotion: Maryland's Martin O'Malley, New York's Andrew Cuomo, perhaps Colorado's John Hickenlooper and former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer.
Then there are women whose names have been softly mentioned: Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, as well as former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"You definitely see Martin O'Malley taking steps, if you can call them that, to put him in a position to run," said one Democratic strategist, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, citing O'Malley's travels across the country putting together a fundraising base and letting it be known he would pursue a run. "Kirsten Gillibrand is less vocal about it, but she too is taking steps to put her in a position to run."
"But I think everybody is sort of holding back, not wanting to appear as though they are challenging Hillary," the strategist added.
Which is why Clinton doesn't have all day to make up her mind. More precisely, she is expected to decide by January 1 2015.
"She has to make her intentions clear by the end of the year and I think she understands that," said Myers, who serves as the managing director of the Glover Park Group in Washington, D.C. "The reason is because it's a wide open race if she gets out."
It may be Republicans, not Democrats, in the throes of a civil war between the establishment and its extreme conservative flank -- a battle that is expected to dominate the Republican presidential primaries. But without Clinton to clear the field, a raucous Democratic primary might reveal similar fissures in the Democratic Party.
"You also have two tracks, you have the progressive slot for a progressive candidate and a slot for a more establishment candidate," Myers said.
On Team Progressive, prospective candidates Warren and Schweitzer are both known for their populist approach to economics as opposed to a pro-business philosophy. Team Centrist could include Governors Cuomo and Hickenlooper.
Some argue the Democratic Party really isn't very divided right now, that small cracks in the coalition would not actually damage the party the way the Republican Party's warring factions threaten it. Both Cuomo and Hickenlooper shepherded gun-control packages through their state legislatures last year, and the former also pushed hard to legalize gay marriage while the latter won a battle for civil unions. Check and check. Cuomo is currently working to pass a public campaign finance law, a top issue for progressives.
Still, Cuomo is hardly the face of progressive politics -- a fact the New York Times noted when a recent press conference in the New York state capital of Albany featured a banner with the message "Cutting Taxes" while, 150 miles south, the progressive new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, wants to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for his prekindergarten initiative. As the governor of a major state with a significant fundraising base, Cuomo would certainly be a top contender without Clinton in the mix.
"I actually think the party as a whole is on a progressive trajectory right now," said Jim Dean, who runs the progressive PAC Democracy for America. "Whether it's Elizabeth Warren or somebody else, I think you would see some people of that ilk step up to the plate."
"It's possible that a centrist, pro-business Democrat could run," he said, "but they're not going to win the nomination."
But the Democrats do not face simply a progressive/centrist split. For example, Schweitzer may be populist, but his pro-gun stance runs afoul of the Democrats’ newfound commitment to gun restrictions, while his views on oil and coal production are at odds with the party’s environmentalist base.
Then there are the women's groups that want to see a woman president, with or without Hillary Clinton. "We love Hillary Clinton, we hope she runs," said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily's List, which works to elect pro-choice, Democratic women. "If she decides not to run, there are a number of strong women candidates."
Last year, the group launched its “Madam President” initiative to create momentum for the idea of the first female president, holding town hall meetings in key primary states to drive up enthusiasm. "There will be a woman on the ticket in 2016," Stech said. "That is our goal and that is what we are focused on."
Where Democrats disagree is on whether these competing interests in their big tent party will actually harm Democrats’ chances or merely create a lively debate before coalescing around a candidate. Some believe many of the potential candidates could prove formidable once out from under Clinton's long shadow.
"I don't think it's the end of the world if she decides not to do this," Dean said. "If she decided not to, I think we would have some very good candidates and a very vigorous debate -- as we should -- for a president that would work for Democrats."
Others feel Clinton would be the strongest candidate against a strong Republican candidate (many cite Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida), but seem less worried if one of their own second-stringers goes up against a second-string Republican (such as Senators Marco Rubio of Florida or Rand Paul of Kentucky).
Democrats could pull it off and keep the White House without Clinton, but not without a little excitement first.
"Just look at what's happening in California around the Waxman race," said Myers, referring to the House district where veteran Representative Henry Waxman, D-California, recently announced he is retiring, setting off what the Los Angeles Times dubbed a "land rush" for the seat. "People are going crazy because there's an open Democratic seat in Los Angeles."
"It will be one hundred times that [craziness] if Hillary doesn't run. It will set off a chain reaction of events that" -- Myers paused for a second -- "it will just be nutty for a while."
But she'll probably run. Right?