The Clinton Campaign’s “Hillary Problem”
WASHINGTON, April 15, 2015 —“Buckle up, America, the Clintons are back!”
That memorable line wasn’t uttered by Hillary Clinton — but by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon, spoofing Clinton’s weekend announcement of her long-expected White House bid. In two memorable turns this spring, McKinnon has played Clinton as a wide-eyed, singularly focused control freak hell-bent on reaching 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
It’s satire, and it works for the same reason any satire works: it is built on a kernel of truth (or at least, a kernel of what is largely accepted as truth).
Team Clinton appears to understand that their campaign’s biggest liability is the candidate herself.
The actual announcement (the day after the aforementioned sketch aired) was almost completely opposite of what the SNL writers imagined. It certainly didn’t focus on the candidate. Clinton didn’t even appear until about 90 seconds into the low-key, slickly produced 2:15 video.
She’s appears on screen for about 15 seconds total.
Clinton’s announcement stood in contrast not only to observers’ perceptions but also to other presidential announcements just this year. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul addressed raucous crowds meant to convey enthusiastic support (and, they hoped, inevitability); their colleague Marco Rubio emphasized his background and personality. Meanwhile, the politician working on a third decade in the national consciousness humbly stepped into the limelight only to promise she would “earn your vote.”
After the announcement, Clinton’s van trip to Iowa was similarly subdued, with only rare interactions with “everyday Americans” or media.
It’s a conscious move by Clinton and her campaign to avoid appearing as if they take the pole position in the nomination process for granted. Clinton is the overwhelming favorite, but has to pretend that she doesn’t know it.
Apparently, the team understands the sentiment expressed in a recent Bloomberg poll, showing 72 percent of Democrats and independents hopeful for a strong primary competition. While her approval ratings remain strong, and Democrats want Clinton as their nominee, they are uncomfortable with the idea that she would sail, unvetted, to the nomination. In other words, they want a primary challenge, if only to make Clinton work a little.
Nate Cohn of the New York Times points out that this probably wouldn’t help. A primary, Cohn says, would only serve to dredge up negative feelings Democrats already have for her – much as the 2012 primary season beat up an already flawed Mitt Romney – which would ultimately hurt her with swing voters in the general election.
That belies a deeper problem: Even the voters who like her don’t like her all that much. If latent dissatisfaction with Clinton makes the primary a risk, it makes the general election a risk as well.
It’s one thing for a campaign to go low-key to evoke grassroots imagery. Its quite another when it tries to hide the candidate.
Just as Romney’s flippant comment about not caring about 47 percent of America fed the perception of the awkward, out-of-touch c-level executive, Clinton will be vulnerable to missteps because of preconceived notions voters have about her.
A curt retort to a reporter’s question or a sharp rebuke of a campaign trail heckler will remind voters of the version of Clinton they see on Saturday Night Live – just as her ham-handed fumbling when she tried to explain the email server issue last month left more questions than it answered.
In a close race, that could tip the scales. And it puts Democrats in a catch-22: Clinton needs to avoid seeming aloof, but can’t be trusted in the genuine interactions with media and voters that would alleviate that image.
The Clinton Campaign’s biggest problem remains that Hillary Clinton is the candidate.