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Clinton traces friendly path, troubling party


WASHINGTON » Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be dispensing with the nationwide electoral strategy that won her husband two terms in the White House and brought white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America back to Democrats.

Instead, she is poised to retrace Barack Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency: a campaign focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters.

Clinton’s aides say it is the only way to win in an era of heightened polarization, when a declining pool of voters is truly up for grabs. Her liberal policy positions, they say, will fire up Democrats, a less difficult task than trying to win over independents in more hostile territory – even though a broader strategy could help lift the party with her.

This early in the campaign, however, forgoing a determined outreach effort to all 50 states, or even most of them, could mean missing out on the kind of spirited conversation that can be a unifying feature of a presidential election. And it could leave Clinton, if she wins, with the same difficulties Obama has faced in governing with a Republican-controlled Congress.

It is causing consternation among Democrats in conservative states that could be given short shrift by her campaign or bypassed altogether.

When Bill Clinton reclaimed the presidency for Democrats in 1992, his road to the White House ran through Southern and Southern-border states filled with what were then a precious commodity: swing voters.

Twenty years later, Obama convincingly won a second term without competing in states like Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee or West Virginia that powered Bill Clinton. And because of his strong appeal among liberals, Obama did so even while losing among independent voters.

As Hillary Clinton intensifies her campaign for the Democratic nomination, it is clear from her left-leaning policy stances, her hiring and her focus on data-driven organizing that her strategy is modeled on Obama’s, not her husband’s.

If she won, it would suggest the Obama coalition of young, nonwhite and female voters is transferable to another Democrat. And it would validate the idea that energizing core supporters is more important in presidential contests than persuading those still undecided. To the architects of the Obama strategy, Clinton’s approach is not mere homage: It is unavoidable, given that there are few genuine independents now and that technology increasingly lets campaigns pinpoint their most likely voters.

"If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 percent of the electorate, you’re not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need," said David Plouffe, a top Obama strategist who has consulted informally with Clinton.

Clinton has said repeatedly that she does not want a lonely victory in 2016; she wants to elect Democrats down the ballot. A group of her senior aides met recently with officials at the Democratic House, Senate and governor campaign arms to brief them on the aides’ research and plans for her message and organization. And Senate Democrats are hopeful she will lift their prospects, because there is considerable overlap in crucial states: The results in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin will almost certainly determine both who wins the White House and which party controls the Senate.

House Democrats, while realistic about the difficulty of retaking control, are also counting on Clinton to drive turnout for their candidates. There will be contested races in some presidential swing states, but Democratic strategists say Clinton could also help the party unseat House Republicans in deep-blue states like New York and California.

So to Democrats in states where Clinton is unlikely to compete, her relying on Obama’s map would be worrisome. It would not only further diminish beleaguered state parties, but also leave Clinton with a narrower margin for error.

"Go ask Al Gore," Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said about the risk of writing off states such as his, where Democratic presidential candidates prospered until 2000. "He’d be president with five electoral votes from West Virginia. So it is big, and it can make a difference."

Centrist Democrats also worry focusing on liberal voters could lead to a continuation of the problems Obama has faced with a Congress elected by a vastly different subset of the nation.

"That’s not good for the country," Manchin said, adding he hoped Clinton would "come to the middle" if she became president.

Of her campaign, he said, "If they get her too far over, it’s going to be more difficult to govern, it truly is."

Other rural-state Democrats are sending not-so-subtle messages.

"I think that we always appreciate when people want to kind of talk to the whole country and listen to concerns, and I think farm country is critically important," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

A larger risk of a tailored strategy is that by taking advantage of polarization, a candidate could lose some of the authority that comes from the civic exercise of appealing to much of the nation.

"The president is the one person who potentially could be the unifying figure in the country," said H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin. "And if the president or a presidential candidate basically writes off 40 states, then how in the world do the people in those 40 states feel like they have a stake in that person or that election?"

Clinton’s strategists appear mostly unmoved.

"I think everybody understands how tough it’s going to be next year if we get through the primary," Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said. "So I’m not concerned about hand-wringing on the strategy."

Aides acknowledged Clinton’s map would closely resemble Obama’s, with roughly the same eight or so key states as in the last two presidential elections, and with the possibility of competing in historically Republican states like Arizona where the demographics increasingly favor Democrats.

But given the Clintons’ deep ties to party leaders, including in many red states, and their instinct for building up party machinery, some Democrats wonder whether Clinton will be able to resist old friends who press her to at least test the waters in Republican-leaning areas.

Gov. Steven L. Beshear of Kentucky said he had reminded Bill Clinton this year that he carried Kentucky twice – and said Hillary Clinton could win it, too.

Many in Obama’s orbit are watching closely to see which impulse wins out: an Obama-style faith in the data or a temptation to acquiesce to the familiar. So far, Clinton is heeding her mostly new team of advisers.

"One of the hardest things to do in politics is dispense with old behavior," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser. "That will be a challenge. But they’re setting themselves up to avoid that."

Clinton and her husband expressed concern last year when Democratic turnout fell precipitously. Recognizing that Democrats had to be galvanized to show up at the polls, Clinton’s advisers used surveys and focus groups to assess the risks of running a strongly liberal campaign. They concluded there were few.

So she is embracing the central lesson of the Obama school: that voters turn out when they believe an election makes a difference and their party’s standard-bearer is a champion on issues important to them.

By emphatically staking out liberal positions on gay rights, immigration, criminal justice, voting rights and pay equity for women, Clinton is showing core Democratic constituencies she intends to give them a reason to support her.

The stoke-the-base approach is a hallmark of Clinton’s young campaign manager, Mook. He used similar tactics to lift Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia to victory in 2013, in a race both Clintons watched closely.

It is a starkly different style from that of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, when she was often concerned about being seen as too liberal to appeal to centrists.

This time, Pfeiffer said, "she hired people with a sense of where the electorate is now, not where it was in 1992."

Clinton’s strategic intentions are also evident in her focus on organizing. Mook noted twice in an interview that her campaign already had supporters in all 50 states mustering volunteers to register voters and ensure Clinton is on the ballot. That is partly why the campaign postponed her first rally: so her team could have time to make it more of an organizing event.

That kickoff in New York on Saturday will be an important test of enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy, and of her campaign’s ability to use big events to build the machinery that will identify and turn out voters.

What Clinton says there will matter. But the organizing around the rally, and around the events her campaign is holding that night to build a volunteer network, will be just as consequential.

It is a far cry from her husband’s campaigns.

"The highest-premium voter in ’92 was a voter who would vote for one party some and for another party some," said James Carville, Bill Clinton’s chief strategist in 1992. "Now the highest-premium voter is somebody with a high probability to vote for you and low probability to turn out. That’s the golden list. And that’s a humongous change in basic strategic doctrine."

Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, New York Times

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