A lot can happen between now and then, but barring something truly unprecedented and totally unforeseen — a meteorite, a Benghazi revelation, a health scare, or a Martin O’Malley groundswell — on July 28, 2016, Hillary Clinton will step onto a stage in Philadelphia. There, surrounded by red-white-and-blue bunting and balloons — as well as Bill, Chelsea, baby granddaughter Charlotte, and tens of thousands of screaming Democrats — she will officially become her party’s presidential nominee. It will be a long-awaited and historic moment, the first time a woman (and the second time a Clinton) has topped a major party’s presidential ticket. And already some Republicans are licking their chops, while some Democrats are experiencing pangs of buyer’s remorse.
For much of the Obama presidency, there has been a general sense of calm among Democrats about their chances to retain the White House. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State was distinguished, if not especially consequential. Her favorability ratings hovered around all-time highs. It wasn’t just that her nomination seemed a foregone conclusion; given the dysfunction of the Republican Party and the demographic changes in the American electorate, the race seemed hers to lose. It was hard to find a Democratic operative not in fairly high spirits.
Then, over the past few weeks, the country watched as Clinton dealt with the fallout from the revelation that she used a personal email server while heading up the State Department. Her fiercest critics have charged that she employed the private email system to skirt government transparency laws and, in the process, endangered national security. Her supporters worry that, even if Clinton’s private email was legal and innocent, it was a self-inflicted error that has needlessly handed her enemies yet another cudgel to wield against her. But the glee and regret among Republicans and Democrats have been most pronounced over the disastrous press conference Clinton held at the United Nations to try to put the matter to rest, which served to remind them of something many had forgotten: what an abominable candidate she can be.
Standing in front of a tapestry replica of Picasso’s Guernica, she was testy, brittle, and, above all, unpersuasive — failing to demonstrate the most elementary political skills, much less those learned at Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie. “She read her prepared remarks like a high-school student,” marvels Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who’s been a close observer of Clinton for more than two decades. “She looked down at her notes, then she looked up to the left, down at her notes, then up to the right. Almost the entire time, she avoided making eye contact with anyone.” A prominent Democratic operative is still horrified by the spectacle. “She came off as defensive and artificially put-off,” he says. Another Democratic operative says, “I’m a huge Hillary Clinton fan. I hope desperately she’s the next president of the United States, because I think she’d be a great president. But after that press conference, I do have major concerns about her ability as a campaigner and to get elected.”
The performance made a host of other recent Clinton missteps — seemingly minor at the time — suddenly loom larger in the minds of anxious Democrats. There was her strangely vapid Foggy Bottom memoir, Hard Choices, which racked up middling sales, and her obvious rust in the interviews she did to promote it. There was her continued buck-raking on the paid-speaking circuit, which seemed tone-deaf, if not downright greedy, for someone about to embark on a presidential campaign. And there was her hard-to-figure delay in assembling a staff for the campaign, so that, when news of the hidden emails broke, she had no infrastructure to defend her and instead had to rely on a hodgepodge of veteran freelancers like James Carville and Lanny Davis, whose reappearance made the latest Clinton scandal feel exhaustingly familiar. Democrats may be constitutionally prone to hysteria, but even so, the whiplash of these few weeks has been notable. Now, days before Clinton’s official announcement that she is, once again, in it to win it, some in her party are on edge.
Pat Buchanan, the venerable Republican operative who advised Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, likes to assess politicians as “political athletes.” Putting aside ideologies, policy preferences, even personalities, how do they perform on the political playing field? “It’s charisma, charm, savvy,” he says. “Being a political athlete is having an extra dimension — it’s not learned; you’re born with it.” In Buchanan’s long career, the greatest political athletes he’s encountered have been John F. Kennedy, Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. “They’re naturals: Roy Hobbs or Mickey Mantle,” he says. Hillary, in Buchanan’s view, is the furthest thing from a natural: “She’s like Pete Rose, who has to grind out every hit.”
The grind can be obvious watching Clinton on the campaign trail. In her two successful Senate races and her unsuccessful presidential run in 2008, she often struggled to exhibit the basic qualities required of politicians. “Let’s remember who she’s beaten in her career: Rick Lazio and John Spencer,” says a Democratic consultant who has worked for and against Hillary. “The only time she’s run against anyone decent, she’s lost.” Where most pols project warmth, she often runs cold. Her speeches can be leaden and forced. She tightens up in unscripted moments.
Above all, she bristles at what the public and the press now want most from politicians: authenticity. As she said in a press-conference soliloquy during her 2000 Senate campaign, “ ‘Who are you?’ and all of that. I don’t know if that is the right question. Even people you think you know extremely well, do you know their entire personality? Do they, at every point you’re with them, reveal totally who they are? Of course not. We now expect people in the public arena to somehow do that. I don’t understand the need behind that.”
“She’s a schemer and a planner and a plodder,” says the GOP consultant Rick Wilson, who worked for Rudy Giuliani during his aborted 2000 Senate campaign against Clinton. “You need people like that in politics, but most of the time they end up as campaign strategists, not candidates.” Buchanan is more blunt: “She reminds me of Nixon.”
In 1998, when Clinton was first thinking about running for the Senate, she sought the advice of her and her husband’s longtime adviser Harold Ickes. According to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.’s Her Way, the pair were deep into their meeting — having pored over a map of New York and discussed the myriad local issues she would have to grasp — when a thought suddenly occurred to Ickes. “I don’t even know if you’d be a good candidate, Hillary,” he told her. Nearly two decades later, we still don’t know.
And yet, there’s an increasingly popular school of thought, especially among political scientists but also among some political consultants, that being a good candidate is overrated. Some even argue that it’s irrelevant — not just to what sort of president a candidate would be, but also to whether he or she can get to the White House in the first place. “Most of Hillary’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate really won’t be decisive to the outcome of the election, in part because she’s going to be facing a candidate who also has strengths and weaknesses,” says George Washington University political scientist John Sides. Although there can be extreme talent differentials between candidates in down-ballot races, once you get to the big time of a presidential campaign, any candidate capable of winning his or her party’s nomination is going to be playing in the same league as his or her opponent. “It’s difficult in a presidential election for one of the two candidates to be clearly superior,” Sides says.
Academics partial to this analysis will grant that, say, Obama could rally a crowd better than Mitt Romney, or that Bill Clinton could at least appear to feel a person’s pain more than either Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush. But every nominated candidate for president since 1972, when Democrats lost their collective minds and put up George McGovern, has been highly competent (and each winner has had deficiencies that would likely have been more memorable had he lost). “No one thinks John Kerry or Mitt Romney were good candidates,” says Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, “but they both came very close to winning the presidency.” This is a testament to the elites in both the Democratic and Republican parties, who are always partial to nominees that are capable and electable. “They’re not going to put up someone just because they like and trust them,” says David Karol, a University of Maryland political scientist and co-author of The Party Decides. “There’s a baseline they have to clear. They have to be able to win.” It may take countless debates; the winnowing process of the primary may be torture; but, with rare exceptions, the loons always lose. “Ask Howard Dean” — the antiwar Vermont governor who briefly set the Democratic rank and file’s hearts afire in 2004 before the party elites smacked him down — “if electability concerns matter,” says Nyhan.
Which is why, as Sides and his co-author, Lynn Vavreck, argue in The Gamble, their book about the 2012 election, a presidential campaign is less akin to a boxing match — “where the momentum may be shifting back and forth with every punch and the knockout blow could come at any moment” — than to a tug-of-war. “Both sides are pulling very hard,” they write. “If, for some reason, one side let go — meaning they stopped campaigning — then the other side would soon benefit. But of course the candidates do not let go and that makes it hard to see that their efforts are making a difference … We argue that it means they are equally effective.” According to this theory, what ends up decisive in a tug-of-war are certain fundamentals beyond the control of the candidates or their campaigns. “Demographics, the economy, and war and peace are more important than whether someone has a nice smile or is a good debater,” says Karol.
The election model that’s most in vogue — that scored the highest when applied to presidential elections since World War II, correctly predicting every outcome since 1992 — is one created by Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz called “Time for a Change.” Abramowitz argues that the fundamentals in a presidential election are bedevilingly simple: the incumbent president’s approval rating in late June or early July, the rate of real GDP growth in the second quarter, and how many terms the party has been in the White House.
In 2012, for instance, Obama’s relatively lopsided victory may have shocked Republicans on Election Night, but by Abramowitz’s reckoning it was practically preordained. Although second-quarter real GDP growth was a relatively unimpressive 1.5 percent and Obama’s approval rating was a good-but-not-great 46 percent that June, he was seeking reelection, and, according to Abramowitz, “first-term incumbents rarely lose.” In fact, he believes that being a first-term incumbent is worth 4 percentage points. There was nothing in the Abramowitz model that looked good for John McCain in 2008 (bad economy, bad approval ratings of a second-term president from McCain’s party). In 1988, by contrast, George H.W. Bush was also running to give his party a third term, but Q2 real GDP growth that year was a booming 5.24 percent and Ronald Reagan’s approval rating was above 50 percent.
Sound familiar? “If Obama’s approval rating is close to 50 percent and the economy is growing at a decent rate in the fall of 2016 — both of which seem quite possible, maybe even likely — then I think Hillary Clinton would have a decent chance of winning,” Abramowitz says. But then there’s the “Time for a Change” factor and those four extra points Obama enjoyed in 2012 that Hillary won’t have this time around. In other words, it would be an extremely close race.
Which brings us full circle. “What determines the outcome in 2016,” Abramowitz says, “could very well be the quality of the candidates.”
It’s all enough to drive lay political junkies batshit. Just what, exactly, should they be obsessing about? The next news report that, say, Clinton once gave a paid speech to a waste-management firm that was hired by her family’s foundation to do relief work in Haiti while it simultaneously received capital from her son-in-law’s hedge fund, which also happens to employ the Haitian president’s niece as its in-house florist? Or the revised Q4 housing-starts report? What if, the same week that Clinton’s busted for hiring a custodial service that employs undocumented immigrants for her Brooklyn campaign headquarters, Obama announces an election-year income-tax holiday? What’s going to matter more in November 2016?
As much as a presidential race is a referendum on the candidates, it’s also a referendum on the dominant analytic style of the moment. The 2008 election was the campaign as soap opera, with an extraordinary cast of characters and the narrative suspense of the best television shows, scripted or reality. Four years later, it was Nate Silver’s world (all that mattered were the fundamentals), and the rest of us — Obama and Romney included — were just living in it, trying to parse which pollster’s numbers were skewed and whose models were best. At the beginning of this presidential election, the analytical innovations coming from the smartest academics offer a framework for following the race that is at once liberating and terrifying: Nothing really matters. Unless it does.
To the extent that Clinton exerts at least some control over the destiny of her campaign, the primary source of fear among her supporters has always been her struggle to appear natural and relaxed in public. In his book about Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, Hillary’s Turn, Michael Tomasky laments “her exasperating tightness.” In the Senate, Chuck Schumer used to tell aides that Clinton was “the most opaque person you’ll ever meet in your life.” Schumer would also add that if he’d “lived her life, I’d be that way, too,” and though Clinton is sometimes critiqued for appearing inauthentic, it’s very possible that this tightness is absolutely honest. She is an introvert by temperament, surely traumatized by the invective thrown at her during her time as First Lady, consequently terrified of spontaneity, and insufficiently skilled at pretending otherwise. Still, genuine cautiousness can also be off-putting, and by the time of Clinton’s last presidential run, her opacity and rigidity had morphed into what looked like haughty entitlement. She seemed either unwilling or unable to campaign in a way that allowed voters to feel they got to know her personally.
For most of 2007, her campaign events more often resembled arena-rock spectacles than the intimate gatherings Iowans and New Hampshirites expect. When Clinton did submit to town halls, allowing for give-and-takes with voters, her staffers were occasionally caught planting questions. Clinton’s stamina is legendary (she traveled nearly 1 million miles as secretary of State), but it didn’t seem to translate to campaigning. “Presidential campaigns in the early going are a series of exhausting indignities,” says a Democratic operative who worked for one of Clinton’s 2008 rivals. “How many diners a day can you bring yourself to visit? Can you make the fifth phone call to some city councilman in Dubuque for an endorsement? She didn’t want to do all that stuff.”
Then, suddenly, she did. After a third-place finish in Iowa, with her back against the wall, Clinton morphed into a more impressive candidate. The most famous example of this transformation was when, two days before the New Hampshire primaries, she briefly teared up at a Portsmouth coffee shop while answering a question about how she stayed upbeat in the face of so much political adversity. But those who worked for and against her in 2008 point to other instances of her newfound skills. In New Hampshire, she began staying late at town halls to answer every question (none of them planted) and even stood on street corners at rush hour — out with the people and among the traffic — to wave at passing cars “like she was running for mayor of Manchester,” recalls former WMUR political director Scott Spradling. In Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, her events were smaller and she worked the rope line with abandon. “She was at her best when she was very low to the ground,” says one former Obama adviser. Another senior member of Obama’s 2008 campaign team says, “We might have lost to her if we’d been facing the Hillary of New Hampshire and Ohio as opposed to the one that we faced all of 2007.”
Indeed, Clinton’s performance in the latter half of the 2008 campaign, as well as her subsequent development, has convinced some operatives that she can achieve the sort of connection with voters she’s always been faulted for lacking. “She doesn’t get enough credit for being good in a room with people and making them feel listened to,” says Tommy Vietor, a former Obama aide. “If she could charm a White House full of staffers who, just a year earlier, were literally paid to destroy her, she can get a mom in New Hampshire to think she’d make a great president.” It’s a realization that Clinton herself has apparently taken to heart. “I think you’ll see a return to much more personal interactions on the campaign trail rather than big cattle-call gymnasium events,” says one person close to Clinton’s nascent campaign.
Perhaps her loss in 2008 was traumatic enough to fundamentally rewire Hillary Clinton the candidate — though how, then, to explain the Guernica press conference? More likely, the Clinton running this campaign will resemble all the previous ones, and her difficulty projecting something that reads as sincerity will be akin to Obama’s aloofness: a negative character trait that sometimes slips into remission but will dog her until retirement. It’s also possible that her weakness here is overblown. To many observers at the time, the 2008 primary race looked like a perfect controlled experiment: a long slog between two candidates, and as soon as one loosened up, she started winning again. But extensive analyses now suggest that Clinton’s personality shift wasn’t what drove her temporary comeback. “There was a media narrative constructed around the ups and downs of 2008, but if you look at the demographic makeups of those states and whether it was a primary or caucus, that ends up explaining most of the variation in their performance from state to state,” says David Karol. “In Pennsylvania, she was throwing back shots and playing pool while Obama was bowling gutter balls, but Pennsylvania is a primary rather than a caucus state, and the Pennsylvania demographics were more favorable to her.”
Campaigns are punctuated by moments of high stagecraft — debates, convention speeches — that require oratorical talents that Clinton does not possess in abundance. “She doesn’t make mistakes in the debates, but that’s different than being good,” says a Democratic operative. “She doesn’t win a lot of people over.” The former Obama aide Bill Burton, who thought Clinton did well in her 2008 debates, nonetheless sums up her performances another way: “Maya Angelou said people won’t remember what you say or do but they’ll remember how you made them feel. If anything, she was a little too driven by data and less driven by how she was going to come off.” In fact, one of the greatest sources of agita among Democrats these days is that, deprived of a competitive primary, Clinton will face her well-seasoned Republican opponent without having debated in more than eight years.
But various academic studies have shown that even the debates that we consider most game-changing — Kennedy’s besting of a sweaty, five-o’clock-shadowed Nixon in 1960; Michael Dukakis’s botching of a question involving the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife; George H.W. Bush’s impatiently glancing at his watch in 1992 — had little or no impact on voter preferences. “Thinking of debates as changing people’s minds about politics is like thinking fans watching a basketball game are going to change which team they’re rooting for,” says Dartmouth’s Nyhan. “The people who watch debates are already invested, and the people who aren’t invested don’t care so they don’t pay attention to debates.”
Clinton might give a terrific acceptance speech at the Democratic convention; it could also be lackluster. Chances are it won’t be remembered by the fall. Dukakis accepted his party’s nomination to the strains of Neil Diamond and led George H.W. Bush by 17 points after the Democratic convention; Sarah Palin seemed to light a fuse under John McCain’s candidacy with her convention star turn in 2008, and he surged five points ahead of Obama. Or consider Al Gore, whose eight-point convention bounce in 2000 is one of the largest since World War II. “Was Al Gore’s speech that great? He was sweaty, and he made out with Tipper at the end. But people wanted to believe,” says Nyhan. “A lot of what a convention is doing is reminding people who they are, what their partisan loyalties are, and what the state of the country is. Gore was underperforming where the fundamentals suggested he should be, and so he got a big convention bump. It was people snapping back into place.”
Then there’s Clinton’s ability to give voters reasons to oppose her. For such a disciplined, on-message candidate, she’s committed an inordinate number of gaffes over the years. In fact, some believe it’s that discipline that has led to her biggest blunders. “She has a habit of knowing what her vulnerabilities are,” says a Republican operative who’s spent a great deal of time studying Clinton in preparation for 2016, “and really overcompensating to try to make up for them.”
For instance, in 2007, “in a panic about Obama” — as a Hillary strategist later confessed to Gerth and Van Natta — when confronted with the prospect of speaking opposite him at a civil-rights commemoration in Alabama, she adopted a ridiculous southern drawl. Her comparison of Putin to Hitler at the height of last year’s Ukraine crisis was presumably an attempt to offset her failed Russian-reset policy during her time in Obama’s Cabinet. And it can’t have been a coincidence that Clinton’s heavy-handed critique of free-market ideology — “Don’t let anybody tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs” — came at an event during which she shared the stage with Elizabeth Warren, who poses a threat to Clinton from the left.
Clinton’s worst gaffe of late came last year, in response to a question from Diane Sawyer about her sky-high speaking fees. Recognizing her vulnerability, she overcompensated, claiming that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House. According to one Republican operative who’s conducted focus groups on Clinton in Ohio and Colorado, “when you play that Diane Sawyer interview for lower-income women, women who really have struggled to put food on the table for their kids, they got physically upset at her about that remark.” Clinton only compounded the error when, in subsequent interviews, she tried to defend it as literally true. “She’s not very adept at cleaning that stuff up,” says the Republican operative. “Her tendency is to double down, rather than say that was a ridiculous comment.” Or, as Luntz says, “She doesn’t know when or how to say, ‘Hey, I fucked up.’ ”
In this sense, the March press conference actually represented a sort of progress: Clinton contended that, “looking back,” she wished she’d done things differently. “Rewind to 2008, and everyone was telling her to say that about Iraq and she didn’t,” says a Democratic strategist close to Clinton’s team. “Did the mountain move? No. Did the hills get smaller? Yes. There was an indication that this wasn’t the same Hillary.”
In a tug-of-war campaign, no one gaffe is as consequential as it feels in the moment. “Especially in a presidential race, when there’s so much information about the candidates, it’s very difficult for these moments to pierce people’s consciousness,” says John Sides. This can be true, he argues, even with monumental gaffes, like Romney’s surreptitiously videotaped “47 percent” comments. Although it was the defining quote of the campaign — and dominated headlines, as well as Obama’s media strategy — for much of September and October, Sides and Vavreck demonstrate in The Gamble that it had no bearing on the race’s outcome. Yes, some supporters abandoned Romney in the two weeks after the comments became public, but they didn’t go to Obama — they began identifying themselves as “undecided.” Then, after Romney’s strong performance in the first debate, they returned to him. And so what looked like a groundswell after the debate was simply his old supporters coming home.
What if Romney hadn’t performed well in the first debate? Sure, the voters who abandoned him after his gaffe may never have seriously entertained voting for Obama, but what was suddenly in play was their enthusiasm for the candidate — and, by extension, their likelihood of turning out to vote.
Motivation, not persuasion, is the key factor in a presidential race with an electorate as polarized as it is today. “The idea of the thoughtful independent voter,” says Karol, “is mostly a myth.” As a candidate, you’re not trying to sell yourself; you arrive presold, and the critical question becomes, How many of your kinds of shoppers are out there?
Despite the GOP rout in the 2014 midterms, some Democrats remained amazingly sanguine about Clinton’s 2016 prospects because they believe the demographics are in her favor. Turnout in presidential elections is always higher for Democrats than in midterms. As Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of Daily Kos wrote last November, “We have two separate Americas voting every two years … And Democrats can win easily with the one, and Republicans can win easily with the other.” More important, the trend lines are promising for Clinton. White voters — or, as demographers call them, “non-Hispanic white voters,” or, as Republicans call them, “our base” — are becoming an increasingly smaller part of the electorate.
This is particularly pronounced in key swing states. In Florida, for instance, the white share of the electorate is expected to decline from its 2012 level of 65.3 percent to 61.7 percent in 2016, while the Hispanic share will increase from 17.1 percent to 20.2 percent. In Nevada, the white portion will fall 4.5 points, to 60.2 percent, while the Hispanic share climbs 2.9 points to 18.8 percent. Obama narrowly won both these states in 2012; a Republican candidate in 2016 faces a steeper climb. Now consider North Carolina, which Obama lost by 2.2 percent in 2012. There, voters of color are expected to increase their share of the electorate two points by 2016, to 31 percent. According to projections by Patrick Oakford of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank whose founder, John Podesta, will be Clinton’s campaign chair, Clinton just needs to retain the same level of support Obama received from North Carolina voters of color in 2012. Then she’ll beat his overall performance by 2.3 percent — tipping the state, by 0.1 percent, in her favor.
Ironically, though, while Clinton may be entering the campaign with enviable demographics, it is precisely here where she is most vulnerable and where her deficiencies as a campaigner may inflict the worst damage. Put bluntly: Will her candidacy motivate Democratic voters anywhere near as much as did Obama’s?
Hahrie Han, a Wellesley College political scientist, spoke to 80 volunteers on the 2008 Obama campaign. “People we interviewed could quote parts of his speeches word for word,” she says. But Han found they were motivated less by the speeches than the message behind them. “The Obama campaign generated a narrative that was diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational,” Han explains. “There was a problem that voters felt — that the old style of politics didn’t work anymore. Obama was the solution to that problem — a new kind of politics and ‘Yes, we can.’ And the call to arms was ‘Come to help Obama.’ ” Even as an incumbent, Obama remained an inspirational candidate. Black turnout in 2012 was a historic 66.2 percent — a higher percentage than white turnout.
In the past, Clinton has resisted making gender-based appeals. “I’m not running as a woman candidate,” she told supporters during the 2008 primary. In the years since — in part instigated by her campaign — there has been a wave of attention to gender equality across American culture. Beyoncé is a feminist; a campaign is under way to replace Andrew Jackson with a woman on the $20 bill. Clinton is already talking openly about being a grandmother, and she is widely expected to reverse her gender-neutral strategy this time around.
The challenge will be making a vote for Clinton — a woman who has been among the most powerful people in Washington for more than two decades — feel trailblazing. She is building a field operation modeled on Obama’s, lining up many of the same operatives. Jeremy Bird, who ran the field operation for Obama’s reelection campaign, has been working for the Clinton super-PAC Ready for Hillary and is expected to join her campaign once it officially launches. And Clinton has enlisted Obama’s message-making gurus, including his former ad-maker Jim Margolis. “Jim Margolis could make an iceberg feel warm,” says Luntz. “You tell me Margolis has been hired, it’s worth two points in her total.”
Even if Clinton hires every member of the vaunted Obama machine, there’ll be one important piece missing: Obama himself. “Can you re-create the Obama turnout operation without Obama?” worries one Democratic operative.
The biggest difficulty in analyzing Clinton’s candidacy right now is, of course, that we don’t know whom she will be running against. In her wildest dreams, it will be Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, two senators skilled at rallying the Republican base but distrusted (or, in Cruz’s case, loathed) by the party Establishment. But let’s assume that David Karol is correct, and that the GOP nominee will be a familiar name popular among the party’s core donors. Let’s also assume that though his campaign will be extraordinarily well funded (groups backed by Charles and David Koch have pledged to spend almost $1 billion leading up to 2016), Clinton’s fund-raising will be equal to the task, and the finance race will roughly balance out.
Perhaps, then, Clinton will be positioning herself against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Unless Walker dramatically shifts strategy, he will be running a campaign focused less on broadening the GOP tent than on increasing the turnout of his base. This, in turn, would give Clinton ammunition to increase minority turnout for her. A Walker candidacy would clarify certain themes for Clinton — her vision for the role of government is considerably more expansionist than his, and it polls better. A recent Washington Post poll proposing a Clinton/Walker election had her leading 55 percent to 38 percent. But Walker complicates Clinton’s life in one major way. He’d be, as he calls himself, “a face for the future.” Time for a Change, in spades.
A campaign against Jeb Bush would present different opportunities and different challenges. A Bush surname would certainly help neutralize Clinton fatigue, and he might have more trouble getting his base to turn out. The same Washington Post poll, recasting the race as Clinton/Bush, put her at 54 percent and him at 40 percent. But Bush lives in Florida with his Mexican wife, speaks Spanish at home, and supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. In 1998, he won 61 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote in his successful gubernatorial campaign. (He also picked up 14 percent of Florida’s African-American vote.) That Bush is angering conservative activists with his moderate immigration stance — as well as his continued support for Common Core education policies — could make it harder for Clinton to distinguish herself and the themes of her campaign. Bill Clinton, according to the Times, views Bush — as well as Florida senator Marco Rubio — as the most daunting GOP challenger to his wife.
Two different opponents; two very different messaging challenges. The danger to the Clinton campaign, at this early stage, is not that she might slip in a debate or never quite muster an adequate explanation for deleting emails as secretary of State. It’s that she might not have the ability to break through the cynicism and noise of our political circus and deliver a striking, clear message. In other words, she might never figure out how to get journalists to stop writing articles like this one.
It’s almost impossible to overstate just how much Clinton hates the press. She doesn’t trust it, avoids it at all costs, assumes the worst intentions, and generally wishes it would just go away. Her contempt for the people who cover her was on full display in her press conference last month — as was their contempt for her. It’s a poisonous relationship with multiple levels of dysfunction on both sides. Unfortunately for Clinton, she’s the one who bears the brunt of the fallout.
Some Clinton allies are encouraged by the relationship she forged with the State Department press corps during her four years in the Cabinet. The paranoia and outright hostility that permeated her interactions with reporters during the 2008 campaign were replaced by collegiality and openness as she traveled the world. Then again, that experience isn’t exactly good practice for tooling around the Midwest with campaign reporters in tow. “When she’s on a plane with Mark Landler and Reuters and a bunch of nerds asking her about Burma and policy issues, she knows those issues inside out and she knows the trip wires and how to navigate issues that in reality are really dicey. She’s in her element,” says Tommy Vietor. “But out on the campaign trail, she’s going to be getting open-ended questions about her feelings and God knows what else, stuff that’s comparatively unimportant but where there’s no good or necessarily right answers, and that’s just hard.”
Not that Clinton isn’t trying. She’s recently hired a slew of press aides who — unlike many of those on whom she’s relied in the past — don’t loathe, and maybe even like, the reporters who cover her. She’s also taken her own halting steps toward turning on the charm with campaign reporters. Two weeks ago, she gave the keynote address at a political-journalism-awards dinner in Washington. The speech was well received. (She announced that she wanted a “new beginning” with reporters, which they were welcome to as soon as they signed the nondisclosure agreement tucked under their seats.) But it was what happened after her speech that struck many people as new and different: Clinton stuck around and schmoozed. “That’s something Hillary 2008 didn’t do,” says a Democratic strategist close to Clinton’s team. “Back then, she’d give the speech and peace out, especially in a roomful of journalists.” A Clinton adviser adds, “We want to create more forums like that. It’s important to connect with real people, but it’s important to connect with the press, too.”
Journalists love badass Hillary — the one who checks her BlackBerry with her sunglasses on. But as much as they (and she) might wish otherwise, that Clinton is a rare sight. And covering the regular Clinton is often a drag. She’s been around too long, and reporters know her story too well, to get much of a thrill from it; even if she were a fresh face, her particular political talents don’t lend themselves to a riveting narrative. The Republican strategist Stuart Stevens likens political skill to figure skating: “It’s an endeavor entirely judged by a jury with no empirical metrics.” Alienating the jury is a dangerous thing. “I am in the Bill Clinton camp on this,” Stevens says. “For multiple reasons, Obama has been judged differently by the jury than Hillary.”
In small ways, Clinton could repair the relationship. Most important, the same charm offensive she waged on the Obama White House could work on the press pack, too. But it’ll need to be an effort sustained not only in Washington but also in the dog days of Virginia and Colorado, Ohio and Florida.
If she can’t, that will only encourage reporters to cover her critically — maybe even, as Clinton and her allies suspect, more critically than they do other politicians — which in turn could be enough to tip the race in favor of her opponent. “To the extent that the news media wants to dissect her, that could affect perceptions of her if that kind of criticism is a sustained feature of news coverage,” says Sides. He points to Al Gore’s experience in 2000, when the press’s repeated hyping of a series of small misstatements and minor exaggerations by Gore increasingly led voters, even Democrats, to conclude that he was untrustworthy. “Can we say that had Gore been perceived as honest in October, as he was in July, that that would have given him the race?” asks Sides. “Not necessarily. But it could have.”
The question confronting Clinton now is not so much whether she can withstand the scrutiny but the degree of the scrutiny itself. Are we so fixated on diagnosing and dissecting her weaknesses, on scouting all the ways in which she isn’t a particularly gifted political athlete, that the effort becomes, in a sense, self-fulfilling? “The dissections can be more influential than the actual objective features and qualities of the candidate herself,” says Sides. In the end, the strength Clinton will need most, and on which the fate of her campaign may rest, will be her ability to make us stop dwelling on her weaknesses.
*This article appears in the April 6, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.