Let's start ugly. If the election were held today, there is an excellent chance that Donald Trump would win. Polling is all over the place, but it clearly shows momentum in Trump’s direction, and at least one national poll, sponsored by the LA Times, has him with a significant lead.
This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. As bad as Trump can be, this was never, ever, a sure thing for Hillary, and reports of her staff telling her to “prepare for a landslide” were either fake, or evidence of the inexhaustible ability of the collective human mind to deceive itself.
First, the idea that there is some kind of a Democratic “Obama” Electoral College firewall for Hillary is based on a series of false and dated presumptions. Eight years ago many in her camp felt that she would have been the far stronger general election candidate than the President. Hillary could compete in states that Obama shouldn’t have been able to—older, whiter, more conservative places where Obama’s liberal outlook and racial background would have been an impediment. And, so the thinking went, any Democrat willing to vote for Mr. Obama would certainly have backed Hillary, and with at least the same degree of enthusiasm. That, combined with demographic changes, would be more than enough to rescue even a pallid campaign.
What was not taken into account was that Barack Obama was both a generational political talent, and a unique one. His appeal was and is very personal and apparently non-transferrable. He also generates extraordinary amounts of antipathy. The two mid-term elections, in 2010 and 2014, show how catastrophic the impact of Republican anger is on Democratic prospects when Obama isn’t on the ballot to inspire turnout. That rage has intensified as Obama’s approval ratings have risen and a conservative thirst for vengeance has gone un-slaked. Hillary Clinton on the ballot is just waving a red cape in front of that bull.
Second, Hillary starts with a disadvantage that, on its face, seems preposterous. She’s actually knowledgeable and experienced. Trump, by contrast, can only point to his gold cufflinks. But few of the voters seem to care. Even the media, supposedly so much in Clinton’s tank, engages in bizarre doublethink. With Clinton, the microscope is out for every imperfection. With Trump, they assume he knows nothing, so they ask nothing of him.
Third, and we might as well just say it, Hillary can be a lousy candidate. She lacks something in her public persona and her demeanor that generates a connection with many voters. It’s important to make a distinction here between inspiring eloquence, which very few people truly have, and the subtler social skills of making people feel good about themselves in their desire to associate themselves with you.
This isn’t necessarily about personal warmth—Obama has an almost impenetrable reserve—or even an Angela Merkel-style Iron Lady of Competence. Nor a smoothness on the stump—Tim Kaine projects authenticity, and Joe Biden empathy, and neither one of them is going to win the award for Mr. Suave. But some way of making your listeners feel part of what you are doing—some way to project that there’s something more to your candidacy than just yourself.
Hillary hasn’t been able to do that, especially with Obama's base. Younger voters who were excited by Bernie Sanders— because he showed interest in their issues and real fire—are indifferent to her. Millennial women aren’t jazzed up by the historic nature of her candidacy, because it just doesn’t feel like anything special. It’s hard for them to relate to an era where women were largely unwelcome in the professions, and where secretary, librarian, and teacher (until marriage and child-birth) were the usual paths. Hillary doesn’t move them—probably more because the “Moment” doesn’t appear to be that momentous, and if Grandma can do it, it’s probably not all that remarkable anyway.
So, uninspiring, controversial, a lightning rod. Let’s add “trust” issues, coughing, pants suits.
How to turn the ship around?
Let her drop the populist artifice and campaign as just what she is—experienced and tough, period. She can start by holding press conferences—take some hard questions, and if she hasn’t figured out the answers yet, sit on her staff until they moot-court it to death. For the questions she has no good answers, take responsibility and own up to mistakes.
Double down on the ground game—she’s going to need every ounce of it—don’t leave a single Electoral Vote on the table. Field offices, phone calls, registration, poll-watchers. Lawyers, where necessary. The money is there for the infrastructure, use it.
Let her toot her own horn—that’s what Trump does, and turn supposed vice into virtue. Instead of wiggling around in public trying to come up with answers about access in return for contributions, talk about what the Clinton Foundation actually did and does. Roll out the accomplishments—numbers, places, structures built, NGOs aided.
Take a fresh and cold eye, and properly evaluate the Obama coalition. Remember, there is an odd bipolarity that sticks to the President—outside of his almost unique bond with a segment of the electorate, there is probably an even larger group of Democrats (and some Independents) who are more critical of his Presidency, but are thoroughly disgusted with the way he’s been treated and alarmed at the alternatives. That’s a sentiment that has to be mined—and it can be done very successfully by people like Biden and Kaine at the national level, and, through surrogates, all the way down to college campuses. Issues matter here…explain the risks of an all GOP government, but emphasize that demeanor, tone, and respect matters just as much.
Last, finally, and maybe most importantly, change the slogan, in word and deed. “I’m with Her” is exactly what’s wrong with Hillary’s campaign. Try “She’s with Me” and mean it. Show people you have their backs, show them you will fight for them on issues they care about, show them that there is something more to voting for you than just validating your candidacy. Give them a stake in electing you—show them you share their values and their aspirations.
Do I think she can do all that? Actually, I do. This is a smart, capable person, who I think wants to good for as many people as she can. It’s just a little buried right now under an avalanche of negativity, some earned, a greater amount heaped on her.
Time to dig out. She is going to need a big shovel, but she can win.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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