In Iowa, Democrats want to see Hillary Rodham Clinton mingling in their neighborhood coffee shops, answering their questions and sharing laughs. In New Hampshire, they expect her on their living-room couches, listening to their tales of struggle. In South Carolina, they’re eager to hold hands with her and pray together.
And in each of the early presidential primary and caucus states, Democratic activists are asking the same question: Where is Hillary?
As Clinton slow-walks her way into the 2016 presidential race, many of the Democratic front-runner’s most active supporters are concerned that she’s not yet doing the kind of face-to-face politicking that is well underway by a cast of a dozen or more likely Republican candidates.
Clinton’s absence has stoked unease among her impatient supporters, who also worry about her reputation as someone uncomfortable with the nitty-gritty of retail campaigning.
“They’re anxious because so many Republican candidates are coming here, they’re flowing in, and it’s like a parade on the other side,” said New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a top Clinton backer in 2008. “Obviously she’s going to run. They’re hoping she’s going to be here so they can actually see her and engage with her and reinvigorate the campaign.”
While Election Day in November 2016 feels a long way off for most Americans, the caucuses and primaries begin in just 10 months. Voters in the states that hold them first have grown accustomed to their unique and personal access to the candidates. Democrats are fearful that without any serious primary opponent, Clinton may instead focus her energy on raising money and preparing for the general election.
Clinton’s team is trying to reassure supporters by signaling that she will prioritize early-state visits and is committed to personal outreach.
For now, Clinton is not a candidate; she insists publicly that she has not made a decision about whether to run. But ahead of her expected campaign launch in April, Clinton has been on a hiring spree, assembling large political staffs in the four early-voting states — while also coping with controversies over her e-mail practices and over foreign donations to her family’s foundation.
People familiar with her plans say she will not make the same errors as in her 2008 campaign, when she came across in Iowa in particular as aloof and presumptuous.
“Make no mistake, if she runs, she will present solutions to our toughest challenges, she will take nothing for granted, and she will fight for every vote,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill.
Clinton intends to invest considerable time on the ground in the early states and will give primary voters and caucus participants direct and personal access to her, said the people familiar with her plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss campaign strategy. As one of them described it, Clinton wants to show, and not just tell, voters who she is.
“If you’ve made the case with the American people that you’re qualified and ready to be president, then your challenge is simply to give them an opportunity to know you and to develop a fondness to you,” said Jerry Crawford, a Clinton friend and ally who chaired her 2008 Iowa campaign. “Our job as a campaign is to stay out of her way and let that contact be very direct between her and the people whose votes she’s asking for.”
For Clinton, there is a benefit to campaigning hard in early-voting states, even with no primary opponent. Three of the first four states — Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — are general-election battlegrounds, so any organizing and outreach she does in the early contests there could benefit her when she takes on the Republican nominee.
Clinton’s campaign-manager-in-waiting, Robby Mook — who ran Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s 2008 campaign in New Hampshire — has been personally involved in preparing Clinton’s early-state strategy. One of Mook’s top deputies, Marlon Marshall, is focused on overseeing efforts in the four early states.
Together with Clinton’s state campaign directors — Matt Paul in Iowa, Mike Vlacich in New Hampshire, Emmy Ruiz in Nevada and Clay Middleton in South Carolina — they are trying to build a data-driven strategy modeled after President Obama’s successful 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
In Iowa, for instance, Paul is building a full-capacity staff of at least 40 people that sources said could grow to more than 100 by the caucuses. The team is likely to include aides overseeing field organizing in all regions of the state as well as communications, scheduling, surrogates, constituencies such as organized labor, event planning, data analytics, digital media and budget operations.
In addition, Ready for Hillary, an outside super PAC, has spent the past year and a half recruiting volunteers and holding house parties and other events to lay a foundation for Clinton’s run in early-voting states.
No other Democrat is preparing a campaign on this scale. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.) — an independent who caucuses with Democrats — and former senator James Webb (Va.) have made recent visits to the early states, but none has a robust political operation on the ground. Some organizers are trying to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) to enter the race, but she insists she is not running.
Democrats in early states have not been shy about offering Clinton advice.
South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a prominent Obama supporter in 2008 who has taken on a leadership role with Ready for Hillary, said Clinton must run “a ground-up operation” in his state.
“People want to see you, people want to touch you, people want you to pray with them,” Sellers said. “Those are things that have to be done. She doesn’t have to live in South Carolina, but we expect her to run hard in South Carolina and be in position so that little girls can actually run up and say, ‘Oh, my God, I met Hillary Clinton.’ That is how the excitement builds.”
Former senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said in an interview before his January retirement that Clinton couldn’t campaign for the caucuses “from a distance,” regardless of whether she faces tough opposition.
“What she would need to do is just come out, do her usual thing, get around to some homes, get around Iowa — and she’s good at that. She’s very, very good at that,” Harkin said. He added: “She can’t do it from a distance. She’ll have to get out here.”
Advice to Clinton is similar 1,300 miles to the northeast in New Hampshire.
“We like to consider the New Hampshire primary the biggest job interview that takes place in America,” said James M. Demers, who co-chaired Obama’s 2008 campaign in the state. “It’s very personal, and there is an expectation that all of the candidates go into the living rooms of citizens here, go into coffee shops, have town hall meetings and hear what’s on the minds of voters and answer questions directly.”
Said D’Allesandro: “You know New Hampshire. We’re a bit pompous. . . . They expect her to come and sit on the couch in their living rooms. They know she can’t do it for everybody, but they do expect her to do that.”