Hillary's Enthusiasm Gap

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Clear Lake, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Deep into the political silly season, it seems the pundits are getting rather tired of being so very, very wrong in predicting the imminent demise of Donald Trump's candidacy, so instead they all seem to have turned to a new summertime storyline: predicting the imminent demise of Hillary Clinton's candidacy. This is what passes for conventional wisdom inside the Beltway in the dog days of August, but it's likely going to turn out to be just as wrong as the endless refrains of "surely this will sink Trump!" which preceded it. For anyone so disconnected from reality to understand what I'm saying here, a handy reminder that we have over fourteen months before the 2016 election. Even the first primaries are still a half a year away. And anything can happen in that amount of time in politics.

Hillary's campaign, to read the headlines, is in such a sorry state that it's a wonder she hasn't just hung up her hat and gone home. If you just woke up from a coma and read only the past week's headlines, you'd be wondering when Clinton will be scheduling her concession speech, as she prepares to exit the race. That this is patent nonsense seems to have escaped everyone.

The pundit world is gleefully ignoring a few facts, since they are inconvenient to the "Hillary is toast!" talking point. Let's begin with her poll ratings, which continue to dominate the race. Hillary Clinton, right now, commands support from more voters -- of either party -- than anyone else in the race, by far. Donald Trump is making big news because he has hit a plateau (or perhaps ceiling?) of roughly 25 percent of Republican primary voters. The other Republicans in the race are fighting over the crumbs left behind -- Trump routinely posts polling numbers twice as high as his nearest competitor, and whenever any Republican candidate breaks 10 percent in polling it makes the news. Only a handful have managed to do so in the entire race, so far. Trump's the only one to break 20 percent in even a single recent poll, in fact. And Clinton regularly charts twice the support from Democrats that Trump gets from Republicans. Heck, even Bernie Sanders has more Democratic support than Trump manages from the Republicans. The Democrats' second-place candidate is doing better than the Republican frontrunner, to put this another way.

Hillary's actually doing better in the early polling than just about any recent candidate at this stage in a presidential race (with the obvious exception of a sitting president running unopposed for re-election). She has been maintaining this incredibly high level of support for the entire campaign, in fact. She is still far and away the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. She has had a recent minor slump in polling, but in real numbers this means "her first poll below 50 percent of Democratic voters' support." Any other candidate in the race (of either party) would be overjoyed to have 49 percent at this point, to put this into a bit of perspective. Even at 49 percent, Clinton's still showing twice the support among her party as Trump is among his -- and over five times the support most of the Republican candidates are now getting.

Having said all of that in defense of Clinton's chances, her campaign does seem to be recently showing signs of three particular problems. The first is largely (but not entirely) beyond the campaign's control -- how the Clinton campaign is being portrayed in the media. The second is the level of perceived enthusiasm Hillary has created among voters. And the third is the most worrisome, because it was her downfall the last time she ran for office -- how slow the Clinton campaign can be in identifying what they're doing wrong and in moving on to trying something different.

The first problem is no secret. Clinton has precious little love for the media, and it shows. She is entirely justified in her disdain, considering the history of how the media has treated both her and her husband. At the start of her campaign, she tried stonewalling the media almost completely (remember all those cameramen chasing the Scooby Van in Iowa?). She finally realized that this wasn't the best way to get her message out, and began actually taking questions from reporters. This has helped, but she's never going to be bosom buddies with the press corps assigned to her campaign.

Hillary Clinton's campaign was always destined to take place under the media's microscope. She was the biggest name in the Democratic field, so the lion's share of coverage was inevitably going to be about Clinton. What this has meant (and will continue to mean) is that every tiny little glitch or stumble is going to be widely reported -- a level of scrutiny other candidates won't receive for months to come (if at all). Hey, that's part of the game, though -- both for the first plausible female president and for the first spouse of a former president running. She had to know this level of attention would be focused on her from the very start. No matter what Clinton's team does, there will be pundits out there second-guessing the decision and giving advice on what to do differently (I am no different, it bears pointing out, as this article proves). "Hillary's going too fast! She's going too slow! She's not being specific! She's being too wonky! She won't give me an interview about [fill in the "scandal" du jour]! She's being mean to the media!" These were all going to happen, no matter what Hillary did. She could bake cookies every day for the media plane travelling with her, and she'd still get all of this and more from political pundits.

However, this brings up the second problem. If the campaign has a limited amount of sway over how the media is portraying the Clinton campaign, it is still falling down on providing many moments of excitement for the public to see. This may be a side-effect of Clinton's personality or her agenda, at least to some extent. Clinton is perhaps most accurately described politically as a cautious incrementalist. She wants to move both the Democratic Party and the country forward in a definite direction, but she is much more content than the base voters in accepting incremental progress towards distant goals. Part of this is her political experience -- she saw what Bill faced in getting things done with a very hostile Congress (back in the days of Newt Gingrich). She knows that even if a Democrat wins the White House in 2016, he or she will have a big problem getting any agenda enacted into law -- because even if 2016 is a Democratic wave election, there'll still be enough Republicans in Congress to gum up the works. So Clinton is setting rather reasonable expectations for her eventual presidential agenda.

To put this another way, Clinton is already essentially running her general election campaign. She's trying to woo moderates and not scare suburbanites with anything too radical. The problem with this is that it is out of sync with where the primary campaign currently is. Primaries, after all, are all about exciting the base and creating as much enthusiasm as possible. So far, if Hillary's been exciting much of the base, it's been a pretty closely-held secret, at least in the media.

This is a shame, since even Clinton getting nominated will be historic for women. In 2008, she tapped into this energy and it was apparent from her supporters. "First woman president" was a big draw, and it likely will be again for Clinton. But, so far, it hasn't really materialized. Clinton has chosen a rather low-key and slowly-ramped-up start to her campaign, which is understandable since we do have a long way to go. She doesn't want to peak too early. And those poll numbers prove she's got a lot of voter support, even if they aren't all that excited yet.

However, Clinton is not yet (much as she'd like to be) in the midst of a general election campaign. There's still that whole pesky business with primaries and caucuses to get through, after all. And even though the race has narrowed to a field of three plausible Democratic candidates (one of whom isn't even running yet), it is far from over. Whether Joe Biden jumps in or not, Bernie Sanders is the one causing excitement among the base right now. Lots of excitement. Lots and lots more excitement than any other presidential campaign is currently showing (even Trump's). Sooner or later -- even with the inevitable "Clinton drew smaller crowd than Sanders" headlines -- Hillary's got to hold more conventional campaign rallies than she has so far. With Bernie out there barnstorming the country, Hillary's got to show that she too can cause a little excitement in a large group of supporters. She's got to at least make an attempt at closing what might be termed her "enthusiasm gap" with Sanders. Co-opting a few of his ideas and throwing her support behind them would certainly help.

This leads to her campaign's third problem, however -- the one that should be most worrisome for Clinton supporters. Last time around, Clinton famously asked the "3:00 A.M." question: Who do you want answering the red phone in a crisis? She was trying to hit Barack Obama on his inexperience, and show that, in contrast, she'd be a calm leader in a storm. But answering the phone in the wee hours of the morning means a major crisis is demanding some deft decision-making and leadership. So far, the Clinton campaign shows no real evidence of being able to react quickly to much of anything. Time and again, something newsworthy happens and we get nothing but silence from Team Clinton. Then -- usually days later -- Hillary comes out with a pre-parsed answer for how she would have reacted.

This is not the same thing as decisive, 3:00 A.M. decision-making. In fact, it's the opposite. It smacks of focus-group testing and "Which answer will hurt us the least?" thinking. This is precisely what led to Hillary's downfall in 2008. She had a master plan. She stuck to it, and chose to largely ignore the threat Obama presented to her campaign. She was positive all would be well, and that all challengers would disappear after she stunned everyone on Super Tuesday. She refused to deviate from this plan, and it led her to disaster. After Super Tuesday, Barack Obama racked up victories in state after state (many of them caucus states, where voter enthusiasm is crucial), and Hillary's campaign was left flat-footed because they didn't seem to have a "Plan B." From all appearances, they had literally not considered that their master plan could be flawed or could ever fail. When it did fail, they scrambled for a month before they really got back on their feet again, but by that point it was really too late.

This should be the worrisome part for Clinton supporters. Because Hillary Clinton seems to now be walking down exactly the same path. She has a master plan, and she's so committed to it that she refuses to change her strategy to match shifting political realities. To give but one example, her master plan no doubt has a bullet item on it somewhere charting out precisely when Hillary will do her first sit-down interview with a Sunday political talk show. This was likely determined months ago. And, obviously, the date of that first appearance was set far into the future -- as far as they thought they could get away with. In the meantime, Bernie Sanders has been on Sunday television almost every weekend. That's an unexpected development for two reasons -- one, Bernie was never expected to do this well (haven't seen many Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb Sunday appearances, in other words); and two, it's astonishing the mainstream media is even allowing a "Democratic socialist" any airtime at all. They've pretty much been forced to, by the size of his rallies. But Bernie has always been eager to talk to the press, because he knows that whatever stupid questions they throw at him, he'll still be able to get some of his main message out to a whole lot of people who haven't yet heard it.

Clinton's been -- so far -- largely ignoring Sanders. But while her support has recently slipped in the polls, his is slowly rising. The gap between them went from Hillary pulling 59 percent of the Democratic vote to Bernie's 25 percent a month ago, to the most recent poll showing her at 49 percent versus him at 30 percent. She's still 19 points ahead of him, but that's down from 34 points only a few weeks ago.

Team Clinton, obviously, thinks Sanders has a built-in ceiling of support, and that that ceiling is low enough that she doesn't really need to worry about his campaign. She has been -- again, incrementally -- tailoring her position papers towards at least limited support for some of Bernie's issues. Everyone expected this, so it was likely included in Clinton's master campaign plan ("We'll move precisely this far towards the progressive position, because any further and we'll risk losing independent support in the general election"). So, a few good (baby) steps in the right direction, but not really enough to even begin to close the enthusiasm gap.

Hillary Clinton needs to get her face in front of the media. She needs to do some interviews, even if they're going to ask her about scandals. She should sit down and practice with her husband the various techniques to deflect such questions (since he's a master at it), but she's got to shake the image of "Hillary Clinton, waiting for her coronation, disdainfully dismissing the media." Sure, there'll be tough questions. With either Clinton, there will always be a current scandal (or a trumped-up "scandal") for the media to ask about, so this really should have been part of her master plan all along. But once she plows through those questions, she'll then have an opportunity to make her case directly to the public -- why she'd be a great president and where she wants to lead America.

And, yes, she's got to expand beyond intimate town halls and chats with hand-picked citizens. She's got to hold some big-time rallies, even if she runs the risk of pulling smaller crowds than Bernie Sanders. She's got to hone her applause lines and practice getting voters fired up. Because so far, not much evidence of this has leaked out to the general public. Hillary Clinton can indeed be an exciting presidential candidate -- she proved that the last time she ran. She can fire up women in particular (by speaking about the glass ceiling once again, perhaps) and get some people just as excited about electing the first woman president as they were about electing the first African-American president eight years ago. After all, her platform may be rather incremental but it's still miles better than anything any Republican has put forward.

To do any of this, however, she's got to go back and build a little more flexibility into her master plan. She's got to do a lot more contingency planning for both expected and unexpected future events. She's got to be a lot faster on her feet than she has yet been. Americans want to see presidential candidates who can adapt to shifting circumstances. And they also want a heck of a lot more excitement out of a candidate than Hillary Clinton has so far given them.

 

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