After Hillary Clinton’s shellacking in New Hampshire, her strategists are retooling her campaign to fend off the insurgent challenge from Bernie Sanders. Yet while Clinton's the betting favorite to clinch the Democratic nomination, many assumptions about her campaign are shaky at best.
The votes were still being counted in New Hampshire on Tuesday night when Hillary Clinton’s campaign swung into damage-control mode, downplaying the importance of her expected defeat in the Granite State and calling it an outcome that had been “long anticipated”.
"While important, the first four states [Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina] represent just 4 percent of the delegates needed to secure the nomination; the 28 states that vote (or caucus) in March will award 56 percent of the delegates needed to win,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, cautioned in a memo.
The insinuation, of course, was that Hillary Clinton will be on far more solid footing once the US primary season leaves Iowa and New Hampshire in the rear-view mirror, and heads into bigger and more diverse states that better reflect the American electorate.
The conventional wisdom in this very unconventional presidential campaign is that the more challenging electoral terrain ahead will slow – or halt – Bernie Sanders’s momentum.
Clinton, meanwhile, will hit her stride and finally emerge as the Democrats’ consensus candidate.
Everything but the kitchen sink
It would mark a return to a halcyon era – way back in June 2015 – when Clinton’s “coronation” was seen as a foregone conclusion, and Britain’s New Statesman magazine could ask with a straight face, under the headline “Bush vs. Clinton 2”: “Is America so shorn of fresh leadership and ideas that it is rerunning old elections?”
Sanders knows that the going is about to get a lot tougher, and he’s braced for it: “They are throwing everything against me except the kitchen sink, but I have a feeling that the kitchen sink is coming pretty soon,” he said earlier this week.
But what if the array of heavy objects in Clinton’s campaign kitchen were a lot less fearsome than Sanders fears?
Here, in short order, are five things that Clinton’s strategists are counting on – but perhaps shouldn’t – to seal the deal for their candidate:
Assumption 1: She’s the natural choice of black voters
It was Toni Morrison, writing in The New Yorker in 1998, who first argued that “white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President.” She was talking, of course, about Bill Clinton, a commander-in-chief who “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” The notion of an essentially “black” Bill Clinton impersonating a white president stuck in the American consciousness – and Bill and Hillary’s purported popularity among African-Americans became inextricable. Except, as Morrison later explained, she never intended it as a compliment, but rather as an allusion to his vilification at the hands of white supremacists. “I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.” Almost 20 years later, Michelle Alexander, a black legal scholar and human rights expert, has written in The Nation about why she doesn't believe Clinton deserves the black vote – despite leading Sanders by as much as 60 points among African Americans. “It seems that we – black people – are her winning card, one that Hillary is eager to play. And it seems we’re eager to get played. Again." Alexander goes on to explain how the policies that Bill Clinton enacted, and Hillary supported, from the crime bill to welfare reform, actually "decimated" – her word – black America.
Assumption 2: She’d be the first woman president
I think we can safely stipulate for members of the jury that, if elected, Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president. However, it bears a reminder that it wasn’t her natural inclination until this election cycle to play the “female” card and remind voters of that historic possibility. In fact, when she ran against Barack Obama in 2008 – a black Senator who brought no shortage of historic wallop to his own candidacy – Hillary stressed her steeliness as a would-be commander-chief whom voters could trust if a global crisis erupted at 3am. It is only when she conceded defeat at the end of a grueling primary battle that she spoke of “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” – an allusion to the millions who voted for a woman. Hillary’s playing of the woman card this time have rung hollow with many voters – especially the younger ones, and very especially the younger female ones. You’ve probably heard that more than eight out of 10 voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Sanders also trounced Clinton when it came to women voters – taking 55 percent to Clinton’s 44 percent in New Hampshire. Among female democratic primary voters under 30 in New Hampshire, Sanders beat Clinton by almost 60 percent. Hillary also drew fire from younger female voters after one of her backers, the 78-year-old former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, reminded a rally that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other." Another feminist icon and civil rights leader, Gloria Steinem, stoked further debate by suggesting that young women who voted for Sanders were simply looking to attract boys. Hillary’s endorsement of such statements makes her eleventh-hour conversion to “first woman president” ring hollow. It also makes her seem tone deaf to the evolution of the American feminist movement over the past several decades.
Assumption 3: She has more experience than any candidate in recent memory
“Experience is important, but judgment is also important,” Bernie Sanders said at a town hall meeting with Hillary Clinton on the eve of the Iowa caucus. He was taking aim at a central tenet of the Clinton candidacy: that her decades of experience as a public servant, across a vast spectrum of roles from First Lady to Senator to Secretary of State – makes her uniquely qualified for the highest office in the land. It is true that Clinton has more concrete experience as a candidate than any non-vice president in recent times. But in an election campaign strewn with “unknown unknowns” (“Things we don’t know that we don’t know,” as former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld once put it), experience is an “asset” that can boomerang back in your face. It can even be a liability. Sanders himself, at that town hall meeting, cited Clinton’s 2002 vote in favor of going to war with Iraq, as well as her support of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the US as examples of experience being trumped by poor judgment. A political scientist, James Wilson, wrote back in 1962 that political amateurs who showed fire in the gut and righteousness often outflanked political professionals given to compromise. The meteoric rise of a rank political amateur, Donald Trump, has proven that experience gets short shrift among much of the electorate. And as Sanders has said, there is not enough evidence to unequivocally suggest that experience always translates into sound judgment.
Assumption 4: She brings solutions, not just lofty ideals
The clash between Bernie Sanders’s come-the-revolution idealism and Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism has been the stuff of recurrent headlines in this campaign. As the contest has tightened and the sniping between the two candidates grown fiercer, Clinton has slammed home her message that none of Sanders’s great ideas will amount to any change if he is unable to translate them into tangible solutions. Clinton is basically saying to voters she feels their anger (though I wonder if she really does?) and is ready to channel it in a way that produces the outcomes they are looking for. It is all about baby-step incrementalism versus tear-the-house-down revolution. But no matter how adept Clinton may be at forging real solutions to complex problems – no amount of political legerdemain by a Democratic president will matter if Washington remains gridlocked under a Republican-controlled Congress. And as of now, the Republicans are all-but-guaranteed to keep a lock on at least one house of Congress. Hillary’s “solutions” may prove just as tough as Sanders’s “political revolution” in such a hostile operating environment.
Assumption 5: She has better chances of beating any Republican rival
“Bernie Sanders gives Democrats the best chance to win the White House in 2016 because he performs significantly better than Hillary Clinton against Republican presidential candidates.” OK, full disclosure: that analysis comes straight from the communications department of the Sanders campaign. But the release, however partial, made some salient political points. Taking a worse-case, but increasingly plausible scenario – that Trump emerges as the Republican nominee – the Sanders people point out that their man would trump Trump among independent voters by 14 points (versus just two points for Clinton). Independent voters, it adds, are traditionally an influential bloc in general elections. Sanders’ strength among young voters could also prove pivotal in a head-to-head contest with the real-estate-magnate-cum-reality-TV star. Most Republicans expect that they’ll be running against Hillary – and some are even eager. Marco Rubio has said he “can’t wait” for the opportunity, while Trump would prefer to take on Sanders but says he has his “mind set on Hillary”. It’s a prospect some Democrats dread. As one Democratic party leader in New Hampshire put it: “If Bernie is the candidate, Trump will play up how un-American socialism is, and if Hillary gets it, he will dig up everything in the past 40 years and use it — and won’t mince words in using it.”