WASHINGTON, March 3, 2015 — The Wall Street Journal reports that Hillary Clinton’s official 2016 presidential campaign will kick off in April, months sooner than most observers expected.
Why the rush? Recent polls show Clinton leading head-to-head against all the serious Republican contenders, and would-be Democratic primary opponents are not close. Taken as snapshots, the polls suggest Clinton could pursue a late launch strategy where she allows the Republican field to beat themselves up while she keeps her distance, “looking presidential” by staying above the fray. That plan also saves money and mental energy — two resources campaigns can never get enough of.
But there are three important reasons Clinton and company are smart to launch early:
1. Republicans are Ready for Hillary. Center-right groups started lining up to oppose a Clinton candidacy as soon as she won her New York Senate seat in 2000. She has been a boogey-person for conservatives since 1992. Clinton can’t stay above the fray because the fray follows her.
The scandals certainly haven’t stopped. This week’s allegations that she may have used a personal email address as Secretary of State to evade official record keeping comes on top of last week’s revelation of improper foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.
These issues will remain relevant, whether Clinton is officially in the race or not. However, once she becomes an official candidate, certain types of organizations—such as 501(c)(3) non-profits—will no longer have the same leeway to push anti-Clinton messages. Groups that cannot endorse or oppose candidates will have to tread more carefully. She’ll still be a major target of Republican campaign organizations, though their attention figures to be diverted to a deep and accomplished primary field.
Where Clinton does face criticism—and there will still be plenty—an active campaign organization will give her the best chance to answer negative stories and avoid being defined by the opposition early in the cycle, as Mitt Romney was in 2012. Conventional wisdom used to dictate that because the average American voter doesn’t give much thought to politics, a smart campaign should focus resources to move undecided voters late. But even when voters don’t consciously make election decisions until the last minute, early definitions set the table for those choices.
2. Avoiding Ted Kennedy syndrome. In 1979, Ted Kennedy famously couldn’t answer a simple question: Why do you want to be President? By giving a confused, rambling answer, Kennedy might as well have told voters, “Because I’m a Kennedy, so the White House is where I belong.”
Clinton risks a similar trap. She has been a national figure for 23 years and a rumored presidential candidate for over a decade. Her husband was President. Fair or not, voters will wonder if Clinton views herself as a “legacy” candidate—someone who believes the Oval Office is her birthright, as Kennedy appeared to.
Despite her current lead in the polls, Clinton could very well have serious primary challenges from Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren in particular has been developing a consistent, anti-business message that resonates well with the left-wing activists and voters in the Democrats’ base. If Clinton alienates voters—and, more importantly, donors—by giving the impression that she takes her front runner status for granted, someone like Warren could take advantage.
An aggressive early campaign will let Clinton go beyond having a good answer to the question that tripped up Kennedy. She will have the chance to demonstrate that she is willing to work for the presidency. She would immediately put her opponents into catch-up mode, too. Canned answers and sound bites go only so far; there is no substitute for action.
Incidentally, note the candidate who started the earliest on the Republican side was Jeb Bush, who must also fight the “legacy” perception.
3. The (possibly) coming Catalist controversy. A mostly under-the-radar Federal Elections Campaign complaint could force Democrats to shift strategies later in the cycle. The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust has asked the FEC to look into the data sharing practices of Catalist, the ostensibly for-profit central hub of data used by left-wing groups and Democratic campaigns.
The FEC hasn’t ruled yet, but the investigation alone will increase scrutiny on data sharing agreements among Democrat-aligned groups. In other words, Clinton might not be able to delay her campaign launch while allowing allies to spend resources collecting valuable pieces of information on prospective voters. A ruling that goes against Catalist and its clients could render much of the information collected off-limits.
Data collection and analysis will prove critical for whichever candidate ultimately claims the White House. An FEC ruling that goes the wrong way for Catalist and friends, however unlikely, could wipe out months of work. The Clinton campaign may not have considered this, but it’s a good reason for them to jump in all the same. Launching in April gives Clinton the chance to create an in-house campaign data infrastructure. By onboarding those operations early in the cycle, she doesn’t have to risk massive amounts of critical data being rendered unusable later on.
In another cycle, another candidate might have been wise to hold fire, play coy, and delay an official campaign launch until the summer. That’s not a luxury Hillary Clinton enjoys. As rosy as the poll numbers look on the surface, Clinton’s vulnerabilities call for action. America may or may not be Ready for Hillary, but it’s time for her to find out.