It’s official, Hillary Clinton has announced that she is entering the 2016 presidential race.
It’s an intentionally low-key kickoff plotted by a campaign seeking to avoid the mistakes of Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential bid. In 2007, the then-New York senator entered the race as the overwhelming favorite but ultimately lost ground to an insurgent candidate named Barack Obama amid the perception of an unwieldy campaign apparatus and her inability to personally connect with voters.
Eight years later, Hillary Clinton again enters the race as the overwhelming front-runner — albeit with no real challenger this time, so far. But instead of mounting the same shock-and-awe campaign aimed at scaring away potential opponents, Clinton’s strategists are said to be plotting a more humble approach to 2016 in hopes of winning over voters who complained eight years ago that she was inaccessible and distant.
Instead of massive campaign rallies and big policy speeches designed to show political muscle, Clinton initially aims to make her case in more intimate, small-scale events, including town hall meetings and living room visits where she can reach voters one-on-one. Clinton’s goal — at least in the early days of her bid —is to run her campaign just as Obama did eight years ago, as if she is the unknown insurgent candidate in the race. Like Obama before her, Clinton hopes to show that she is approachable and empathetic to the struggle of average Americans — and, above all, willing to fight for their votes even if she is far ahead in the polls.
“The forums are designed to highlight her humor, common touch, smarts in a more intimate and personal setting that is especially conducive to showcasing her personality,” said Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic operative who previously worked in Bill Clinton’s White House. “Like when Michael Jordan played his best at Madison Square Garden, she really shines in these kinds of more personal venues.”
But the strategy raises an interesting challenge for Clinton and her campaign: Can the biggest rock star in the Democratic Party really go small?
Hillary Clinton is not in any realm a typical political candidate. She travels with an entourage wherever she goes — including a Secret Service detail and a huge press corps that will seek to follow her everywhere. There’s also the issue of her Republican opponents, who will have trackers on her, aiming to film any public interaction she has in hopes of capturing a gaffe or misstep they could use against her campaign.
It’s not yet clear exactly how her team plans to balance the often circuslike atmosphere that trails Clinton with its goal of showcasing the candidate in more intimate settings. It’s something her team never quite figured out eight years ago.
In early reports, unnamed Clinton associates have likened her 2016 approach to the “listening tour” that preceded her successful run for New York’s Senate seat in 2000, when she was still living in the White House. It’s easy to forget that she initially tried the same approach when she decided to run for the 2008 Democratic nomination. She announced her bid on YouTube, with promises that her campaign would be driven by “conversations” with voters.
That was followed by her first official event as a candidate: a visit to a small community clinic in New York City to discuss health care reform. It was an intimate event, aimed at showcasing one of Clinton’s signature issues. But her talk was overshadowed by a mob scene of reporters and curious onlookers who pushed and shoved, attempting to get close to the candidate, as she tried to talk to families who had been invited to meet her. In the end, the disastrous optics became the story, and her campaign cut back on similar events. A few days later, Clinton traveled to Des Moines for what her campaign had billed as a “town hall.” More than 1,000 people showed up — along with more than 100 reporters. It would set the standard for most of Clinton’s events for the next year.
Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire subsequently complained that Clinton was not accessible enough. Her events were too big, her entourage too unruly. As she begins her second presidential bid in earnest, Clinton has to strike a balance between the desire for up-close-and-personal campaigning and the demands of voters who may complain if they can’t get into events to see the candidate — which seems likely, given the excitement and anticipation around her 2016 bid.
Still, the biggest unknown is whether Clinton really can go low-key. Several Democratic strategists demurred on the question, but all agreed that any strategy trying to show what one called “the real Hillary” would be a winning strategy in early primary states, where impressions matter.
Of course, not having any serious competition helps, too. Only a handful of Democrats have announced that they are exploring potential runs. They include former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is touting his foreign policy credentials in the race, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has attacked Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq and her ties to Wall Street. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has also been campaigning, but he’s barely a blip in the polls at this point.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been courted by the left to run, has so far rejected a bid for the White House. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden, who runs a distant second to Clinton in many swing state polls, has not announced whether he’ll run in 2016.
For Clinton, not having a serious opponent raises another interesting question for her campaign: How to run a primary campaign that is already much more about the general election.
In Iowa, Clinton’s strategists have a tentative answer to that question. According to the Washington Post, Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told party leaders there last month that the Clinton campaign would not only focus on electing her president but also building up the party there and in other states.
To that end, her campaign is reportedly planning to raise at least $2.5 billion for the eventual direct contest against a Republican opponent.