The Republicans declared for the presidency so far have come out big — Ted Cruz in front of thousands of Christian college kids in Virginia; Rand Paul in a packed Kentucky ballroom; Marco Rubio plans a glitzy Monday evening launch in front of the iconic Freedom Tower in Miami.
But Hillary Rodham Clinton is going small — real small. When the presumed Democratic front-runner announces her 2016 bid in the coming days, expect a Facebook post, a video, maybe some tweets. Then it’s off on the trail to meet one-on-one and in small groups with voters in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
The approach — described by Democratic strategists and advisers familiar with her plans — is intended to address some of the key shortcomings of Clinton’s 2008 run for the White House, when she often came off as flat and overly scripted before large crowds. The go-slow, go-small strategy, these advisers say, plays to her strengths, allowing her to meet voters in intimate settings where her humor, humility and policy expertise can show through.
What her message to those voters will be is an open question. Many supporters agree she needs a ready answer for why she wants to be president, other than that she thinks she would be good at it.
“It’s important that she campaign directly with real voters and avail herself of the opportunity that New Hampshire offers to talk with individual citizens and not to stand up on some stage and talk at them,” said Terry Shumaker, a veteran of her 2008 campaign who was also co-chair of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Her campaign-in-waiting is revealing nothing about the details of her plans, even what day she will announce. But Democrats familiar with the efforts say Clinton’s team is avoiding big rallies as best it can and in the early phases of the campaign will focus on give-and-take discussions in living rooms and coffee shops.
“My expectation is that she will come to Iowa eager to hear what Iowans have to say,” said Jerry Crawford, a longtime Clinton backer in the state with the first-in-the-nation caucuses. “There will be time for major speeches, but I hope they come a bit later.”
Bill Clinton apparently agrees.
“I think it’s important, and Hillary does too, that she go out there as if she’s never run for anything before and establish her connection with the voters,” the former president told Town & Country magazine in an article published Tuesday. “My role should primarily be as a backstage adviser,” at least for now, he added.
Clinton’s final weeks ahead of an announcement have been dominated by the time-intensive tasks of building a staff and rallying networks of supporters in the four early states. Advisers say she has not wanted to act and sound like a candidate until she announces.
There are several imperatives at work for Clinton, supporters say. Her public image is often chilly, but she needs to appear warm. Although she is most comfortable in the weeds of policy, she must sketch a broad and convincing narrative about why her ideas matter in Americans’ everyday lives. Clinton also needs to cast herself as a fighter who takes nothing for granted — abandoning the air of inevitability that hurt her in 2008.
Clinton will have a relatively short time frame to make fresh impressions. If, as some Democrats say, her first weeks on the campaign trail show an engaged and energized candidate, then she will be off to an effective start. If she doesn’t project those qualities and she loses control of her message or her image, then questions about her readiness and commitment will grow.
“The first step in creating a message and a message strategy is to create a campaign infrastructure that can conceive and support that strategy,” said Phil Singer, who was part of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “To the extent that she’s been creating that team and assembling people, it isn’t a surprise that there hasn’t been a structured message operation or message guiding and informing what she’s done to date.”
Over the past year, Americans have seen many versions of Clinton: as an author selling books; as a former government official collecting big fees for public speeches; as a celebrity feted by one organization after another; as a policy wonk explaining the state of the country; as a new grandmother; as a partisan Democrat.
Those appearances have included good moments and lapses that suggested a prospective candidate not quite ready for the bright lights. Others saw a presidential aspirant who was sometimes better in concept — as the nation’s first female chief executive — than she was in person.
Even some of her strongest backers say that Clinton’s most recent policy-focused speeches have been workmanlike affairs, heavy on information and lighter on inspiration. Speaking to a devoted, partisan crowd at the Democratic women’s group Emily’s List last month, Clinton brought down the house exactly once, when she asked coyly whether the crowd would like to “one day” see a woman as president.
Then she changed the subject.
Beginning with her book tour last summer, Clinton has spoken about many of the big issues of the day, from world flash points to the inequality in wealth, income and opportunity. She has edged into the debate about income inequality and embraced the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran while reserving skepticism about the chance of success.
It is not yet clear how Clinton will fill in the broad strokes of an economic policy focused on expanding opportunities for the middle class, which is expected to be the spine of her campaign message.
Republicans have joined Democrats in talking about social and economic mobility in recent months, and Clinton will be expected to offer left-of-center solutions. But these are difficult and complex issues defying easy or obvious answers — one more reason Clinton hasn’t had much to say.
“With regard to her economic message, she is being very careful and deliberate in formulating it,” said William Galston, who was domestic policy adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House and now is at the Brookings Institution.
Clinton also must navigate fissures within her own party on economic issues, with progressives eager for a sharper edge to her message than she has offered so far.
In her speeches, she has offered mostly generalities or policy ideas with broad support across the Democratic spectrum. “If you ask me, how is she going to come down on the major issues, based on what’s on the record so far, I’m not sure I could answer that question,” Galston said.
She will be on safe ground advocating for paid family leave, alleviating college debt and other such issues. But she will have less maneuvering room in finding common Democratic ground on trade or dealing with big banks or tax issues important to hedge-fund operators and others.
“I think people are going to press her very hard to be clear,” said Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. “They may like it or not like it, but they don’t want to hear platitudes.”
Stern noted that Clinton’s prospective opponents for the nomination — former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former senator James Webb of Virginia and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) — will all be running to her left. And sitting on the sidelines will be Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has said repeatedly she will not run but nonetheless has become a beacon to the left.
Asked Thursday whether Clinton was the future of the party, Warren fell well short of an endorsement. “Well, I think we have to see, first of all, if she declares, and what she says she wants to run on,” Warren said on “CBS This Morning.” “I think that’s really the interesting question at this point.”
“If she falls flat, and there are other people to the left of her, it will clearly excite a lot of adventurism,” Stern said. “If she is going to be populist, she should come right out of the box. That makes it harder for her actual opponents to find space.”