No one can say what kind of candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton will be once she starts actively campaigning later this year. Last summer’s book tour and later public appearances highlighted the degree to which she is both rusty as a candidate and still grappling with the message for a 2016 campaign.
There are clear indications, however, that she is determined to put together a campaign organization that is markedly different from the one she had in 2008, designed to avoid both the tactical and strategic mistakes that contributed to her undoing against Barack Obama and the debilitating infighting that plagued the inner circle of what became for a time a dysfunctional campaign.
The upper most tier of Clinton’s new team speaks to the changes between 2008 and a 2016 campaign. In John Podesta, designated as the likely chairman, Clinton has something she lacked eight years ago. Podesta is someone who can speak to her almost as a peer. He should be able to offer unvarnished and critical counsel from the perspective of someone who has been White House chief of staff in her husband’s administration and a now a top adviser to Obama. In contrast to many of the people in the upper ranks of the 2008 campaign, Podesta likely will not be timid about speaking frankly to her.
Beyond quiet advice to the candidate, there is an even more important role that Podesta could play in a Clinton 2016 campaign. Because of his stature, personality and long-standing relationship with the Clintons, he can speak authoritatively for the candidate, internally and externally. He brings order — to the extent that anyone can — to an operation that otherwise could be plagued by freelancing among the Clintons’ vast and extended network. He has the opportunity to draw clearer lines of authority and enforce the rules.
In Robby Mook, the designated campaign manager, Clinton has a trusted young strategist who earned her confidence in 2008 by helping to pull off victories in Nevada, Ohio and Indiana. Mook is far younger than Podesta, but he has something that Podesta doesn’t have: fluency in how modern campaigns are run.
Other members of the senior team recruited so far have long, collective experience in presidential campaigns and White House operations, and they have been both allies and rivals.
Joel Benenson, the designated chief strategist, and media adviser designate Jim Margolis were key players in the Obama campaign that defeated Clinton in 2008. Others from Obama’s team are expected to play other key roles. Communications director designate Jennifer Palmieri has top-level White House experience. Communications strategist Mandy Grunwald has been part of Clinton world dating back to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
Clinton has been reluctant to begin rigorous campaign activity this spring, given the absence of any serious competition for the Democratic nomination at this point. She has often remarked that her husband didn’t announce his candidacy until the fall of 1991. But her team has been warned by veterans of the Obama campaigns not to take the absence of stiff competition for the nomination as an excuse to start slowly. The advice has been pointed: don’t waste 2015. Clinton appears to be taking that advice to heart.
Even in the eight years since she first ran for president, Clinton campaign operations have changed dramatically, particularly in the areas of data, analytics, targeting, digital, social media and organizing. These are enormously challenging — and time consuming — aspects of a presidential campaign.
Obama’s reelection campaign spent most of 2011 trying to build the political, financial and especially the technological infrastructure necessary to wage a general election — and needed every bit of that time and more to work out many of the bugs. And they weren’t starting from scratch, as Clinton will be doing. They had spent the years after the 2008 campaign testing, experimenting and refining their operation.
Mechanics are one thing, but candidate performance is another. Clinton may be building a different campaign operation, but will she be a different candidate in 2016 — and does she need to be?
She is in an unusual — and possibly unusually difficult — position. The lack of competition for the nomination may seem like a gift at this point, leaving her plenty of time to think through issues, outline a message and let Republicans fight among themselves. But she is not exactly like an incumbent running for reelection. She has never won her party’s nomination, nor faced a Republican presidential nominee in the heat of a general election.
Enough questions remain from her last campaign that she cannot long afford to take for granted her position atop the Democratic field.
How, for example, does Clinton demonstrate to voters in Iowa, where she stumbled in 2008 and where activists expect serious courtship, that she will be a better and more accessible candidate this time?
She is reluctant to begin too early, but is she prepared eventually to travel more extensively there than before? That will be an early sign of the kind of candidate she intends to be this time. Before a formal announcement, is another listening tour, which she used when she began her campaign for Senate in 2000, the way to make those connections?
How does she engage the media, which long has been a quarrelsome issue for her? She did numerous interviews during her book tour, but as a candidate in 2008 she was far less accessible. Her relations with the traveling press corps in 2008 were often difficult. Today’s press corps is larger, more encompassing and more intrusive today than eight years ago.
Here’s another small but potentially knotty issue: What does she do about debates with other candidates, to the extent there are others? At this point it’s far too early to worry about, but at some point it could become relevant. Does she debate? When and against whom? Could she go through the nomination process without ever debating — and would that put her at a disadvantage against the Republican nominee in a fall campaign?
Clinton has many assets as she gets ready for the campaign that everyone now expects her to run — but vulnerabilities and liabilities as well. Her new team has the experience to help her get ready and to weather whatever unexpected problems arise. She is sending signals that she accepts that this campaign must be different than the last. But the answer to what kind of candidate she will be rests squarely on her shoulders — and remains to be answered.