Jencunas: How Inevitability Hurts Hillary Clinton

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

 

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The 2016 Presidential election will have the least competitive Democratic primary in modern history. That’s a blessing but also a curse for Hillary Clinton, the inevitable Democratic candidate. Though she doesn’t need to spend money in a primary, Hillary will face the severe scrutiny usually reserved for general election candidates long before her Republican opponent does. In the glare of the media spotlight, Hillary’s goal of reintroducing herself to voters will be harder than her campaign thinks. 

Clinton has 69% support in recent polling of Democratic primary voters. Her closest opponent is Vermont’s socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, who polls at 5%. Jim Webb has 3%, while Lincoln Chafee and Martin O’Malley both have support of only 1% of voters. 

Early polling is notoriously inaccurate. Rudy Guliani led early Republican polling in the 2008 election but didn’t win a single primary. On the Democratic side, Hillary was the Democratic favorite but lost to Barack Obama. 

But this time is different. The never-before-seen early lead and the weakness of her opponents means that, barring divine intervention, she’s going to be the Democratic nominee for President. In July of 2007, Hillary had a 15-20 percent lead over opponents and was getting 40% of the vote. She was running against a new, charismatic Senator with an inspiring life story. This time she has a 64 percent lead and is facing a collection of has-beens and never-weres. None of her opponents have the name recognition, fundraising ability, or charisma to pull off the upset Barack Obama did in 2008. 

The weakness of the other Democrats means that journalists and all the Republican candidates will be focusing on Hillary. Right now, that means focusing on the Clinton Global Initiative. Investigative reporters and Republican operatives are looking into the Clinton Global Initiative for evidence of foreign governments or corporations who donated to the Clinton’s nonprofit and then received favorable treatment from Hillary’s State Department. An entire book is being released on that topic. In contrast, nobody is writing a book on, or even investigating, Lincoln Chafee’s finances. Hillary’s opponents aren’t seen as legitimate enough contenders to receive media scrutiny – it’s all focused on Hillary.

Early scrutiny makes it harder for Hillary to reintroduce herself to voters. She wants to focus on her experience and her new7found perspective as a grandmother, which is what she’s talking about in the small meetings she’s been having in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is designed to make Hillary relatable to average voters, no easy feat for someone who’s been involved in politics since the 1970s. 

Media support is essential to that reintroduction. She needs newspapers, nightly newscasts, and popular internet news sources to be covering her carefully crafted comments to voters – not other issues. If all reporters want to do is question Hillary’s finances and her decisions as Secretary of State (which are more interesting and newsworthy than scripted conversations with hand-selected audiences) than her reintroduction is doomed to fail. 

In contrast, though the Republican field is more competitive, all of them have an easier time telling their story on their own terms. Because there are so many Republicans who have a chance to be nominated, neither reporters nor Democratic operatives can focus their criticism on a single Republican.

Early criticism of Hillary’s involvement with the Clinton Global Initiative could do to her what Bain Capital did to Mitt Romney. Throughout the campaign, Romney’s opponents made his time at Bain Capital a central part of their attacks against him. Romney was portrayed as a heartless corporate raider who laid off workers to make a quick profit. 

The Bain Capital attack was effective because it was easily understood, while Romney’s defense was complicated. Obama’s campaign could showcase regular Americans who lost their job because of Romney, a clear message that most people could understand. Most voters have lost a job, had a hard time because of that, and blame their greedy boss. 

On the other hand, defending venture capital is a complex economic argument. To explain why Bain Capital needed to lay off workers requires a dense discussion of the economic theories of Joseph Schumpeter, how the macroeconomic system works and how capital is allocated through the financial sector for the most efficient uses. (I’ll bet your eyes glazed over just reading that last sentence.) There was no way that argument could compete with Obama’s relatable anti-Romney message, so Romney instead tried to change the subject onto Bain Capital’s success stories, which didn’t work. 

Similarly, the argument against Hillary and the Clinton Global Initiative is simple. She took money from bad people, foreign governments and big companies, and then gave them special deals that were bad for average Americans. To defend herself on the merits, Hillary would need to explain the details of trade agreements and tax deals. That argument could never compete with the easily understood narrative of bribery and corruption. 

Instead, Hillary will try and present the arguments as empty partisanship. This is where inevitability hurts her. If it were just Republicans attacking her, the arguments could be dismissed as partisan and Hillary could change the subject onto her being victimized by Republicans. But because of her high profile, mainstream media outlets will join Republicans in the allegations of a quid pro quo relationship between the State Department and the Clinton Global Initiative. Hillary could dismiss criticism from Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, it’s a lot harder to claim The New York Times is part of a vast, right-wing conspiracy. 

The problems of an inevitable nominee are good problems to have, but they’re a unique set of challenges. Hillary will have little room for error as she moves forward and will need to have an answer for accusations of corruption. Otherwise she’ll end up with early negatives, just like that other electoral loser, Mitt Romney.

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Brian Jencunas works as a communications and media consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] and always appreciates reader feedback.

 
 

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