LOS ANGELES — The line of cars waiting to be valet parked outside The Exchange, a downtown nightclub here, was proof of how dramatically the mechanics of politics can change in just one election cycle.
In the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, super PACs devoted to helping one candidate were still exotic new creatures — the realm of savvy political operatives and deep-pocketed donors, and largely the domain of the right.
But now — three years before voters will select the next occupant of the White House — a group called Ready for Hillary is setting its sights on 2016, raising money and drawing together supporters for a potential presidential bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Inside the club Wednesday night, more than 400 mostly twenty-somethings milled around the cavernous dance floor, sipping $8 drinks such as the Rodham (Jack Daniels with peach schnapps, sweet & sour, orange juice, 7-Up and a splash of grenadine) or the Hillary (a simple shot of Crown Royal).
Never mind that the potential candidate wasn’t there — and says she has not decided whether she will run.
The event (entry fee: $20.16.) was the fourth low-dollar fundraiser that Ready for Hillary has staged around the country in recent weeks. It had all the hallmarks of a professional campaign event: the group’s red, white and blue logo projected in huge letters above the stage, a slickly produced video and pulsating pop anthems.
“Why do we exist?” Michael Trujillo, a senior adviser to the group, asked as he stood onstage. “Our job is to basically convince, to urge, to nudge, to hug Hillary Clinton into the presidential race.”
Trujillo threw Ready for Hillary T-shirts into the crowd, then shouted, “Who do we want?”
“Hillary!” the audience called back.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Sri Ramesh, a member of the College Democrats at the University of Southern California. “She resonates with me. I identify with her a lot.”
The L.A. fundraiser netted just $8,000 for Ready for Hillary, although organizers stressed that they are less focused on raising huge sums and more intent on building a national network of supporters ready to back her bid.
The super PAC, started by Clinton fans early this year, is now guided by some longtime Clinton hands, although its backers stress that no one close to the former secretary of state has indicated whether she approves of the effort.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said Ready for Hillary organizers “are an independent entity acting on their own passion. Their energy and enthusiasm to convince her to run is inspiring, though only she in the end can make that very personal decision.”
Clinton will be honored in Los Angeles this weekend by the nonprofit International Medical Corps and the U.S.-Mexico Foundation.
Super PACs and other independent groups aren’t allowed to directly coordinate with candidates or party committees, but they can help gin up attention and support for White House hopefuls. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won reelection this week in a landslide, a group of Midwestern fans started Ready for Christie, a super PAC modeled on the Clinton group and aimed at cajoling the Republican to run for the presidency in 2016.
Ready for Hillary is quickly beginning to look like a full-fledged campaign operation, with 12 paid staff members working out of new headquarters in Rosslyn, and a team of 30 in all, including fundraisers and consultants. The group says it has pocketed donations from 20,000 contributors and logged more than 1 million supporters on Facebook.
Next week, members of its national finance committee — a group that includes billionaire George Soros — will meet in New York, joined by liberal activist David Brock, pollster Geoff Garin and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.
The group’s aggressiveness has triggered some consternation among Clinton’s circle, as some former aides worry that the super PAC will confuse donors looking to get in early on a Clinton bid. Some allies have been pushing to turn Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that spent on behalf of President Obama in 2012, into the main pro-Clinton media group.
Ready for Hillary officials have sought to tamp down concerns by limiting donations to $25,000, leaving bigger checks to others.
“I think the longer we’ve been around, people see we have her best interests at heart,” Executive Director Adam Parkhomenko said.
With no other Clinton campaign vehicle on the landscape, the super PAC is emerging as the go-to forum for her allies.
The L.A. fundraiser featured a video message of support from Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.), while former Los Angeles city controller Wendy Greuel appeared in person to rally the crowd.
“In terms of making sure we keep the presidency, it’s never too soon to start,” Greuel said in an interview.
Being Southern California, there was also the requisite surprise Hollywood guest: Omarosa Manigault of “Celebrity Apprentice” fame, who reminisced about a stint as a White House aide when Clinton was first lady.
“All of us have to get together and get behind this sister,” she declared.
Jonathan Colmenares, 25, of Los Angeles’s West Hills neighborhood, clutched a Ready for Hillary placard as he surveyed the scene. He had heard about the fundraiser on Facebook and pronounced the early activity on Clinton’s behalf “insane.” “What are we at, three years out?” he said. “It’s sort of crazy. It’s pretty cool.”