In the last weeks before her expected entry into the 2016 presidential contest, Hillary Rodham Clinton is assembling a heavily research-driven campaign designed to prevent a repeat of her poor performance in 2008.
Clinton still faces many of the same challenges she had seven years ago, when she went from being a juggernaut and most likely the first female president in American history to a perceived stumblebum out of touch with the political moment. A campaign that seemed invincible became known for strategic blunders, an off-putting air of entitlement and infighting among an insular and sometimes inexperienced group of aides.
But backers say this time Clinton is developing a smarter, more relevant campaign message focused on economic opportunity and her lifelong work to better women’s lives. The former secretary of state is also trying to play down any sense of inevitability and aims to adopt many of the same data-focused strategies that Barack Obama used to snatch the race from her in 2008.
Several of Obama’s prominent strategists are now supporting Clinton, and she is incorporating his model of using several pollsters and strategy advisers to diversify information coming into the campaign.
Many supporters point to Clinton’s final weeks as a candidate in 2008 as a good starting point for 2016. She was widely hailed for refusing to give up the fight, showing a feistiness missing from her earlier, anodyne campaign appearances.
“I’ve seen her as a less-than-great candidate in 2007, and I thought she was a very compelling candidate in 2008 after she lost the Iowa caucuses and her fate was very much on the line,” said Obama senior political strategist David Axelrod. “If she’s that candidate, she can do very well.”
Even some strong supporters, however, are unsure whether Clinton can fix some of her biggest problems, including a tendency toward awkwardness in her public appearances and too much reliance on a small band of longtime aides.
“She’s still Hillary Clinton, and last time Hillary Clinton wasn’t a great candidate. You don’t become somebody else” in between campaigns, said one prominent Democrat who is backing a Clinton candidacy.
Many people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid getting ahead of the unannounced campaign.
Holed up mostly out of sight in her Chappaqua, N.Y., home, Clinton is presiding over daily strategy sessions aimed at understanding voter dynamics and the changes wrought by the rise of super PACs and ubiquitous social media, people familiar with her efforts said.
She is also holding policy discussions focused on the economic setbacks facing the middle class and working women and on how to shape solutions that are digestible in a campaign speech.
Clinton appears to be embracing what some Democrats call the “glass-ceiling moment” from 2008, when she poignantly addressed her own failure to break through the gender barrier in her concession speech to Obama.
“She lost a lot of the opportunity for what could have been a lot of energy and passion,” said one Democrat who worked closely with Clinton’s presidential and Senate campaigns. “It’s something people can rally on — it’s a message people can relate to. It’s not a message in itself, but it’s important.”
Clinton may never fully shed all the baggage from her crushing loss, this strategist and others said, but she seems to understand what went wrong.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said Clinton’s gender “provides her candidacy with both a sword and a shield.”
“It is a sword in that, as a mom and grandmom from middle-class, Midwestern roots, she is uniquely positioned to talk with voters [about] being on the side of America’s families,” Lehane said. “It is a shield to deflect the predictable attacks from the opposition about the need for change in 2016.”
She began road-testing those themes while campaigning — mostly in vain — for Democrats during the 2014 midterm elections. Since then, she has been seeking advice on issues and concerns from a wide assortment of business, political and philanthropic leaders while scrutinizing opinion polling and other research.
“If she runs, of course this time will be different,” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said. “As she decides, she wants to cast a wide net and hear from a variety of people on a range of specific topics, from policy ideas to what a successful campaign would look like.”
Clinton’s 2014 speeches were frequently direct in their appeal to working-class and middle-class women struggling to balance household budgets and coping with unequal pay and professional opportunities. She sprinkled in personal anecdotes from her working life and spoke about the brighter, fairer future she hopes her new granddaughter can inherit.
That sets Clinton up for a populist-tinged campaign message of fair play and reward for hard work that is aimed at voters who feel left out of the economic recovery, numerous strategists said.
“I honestly believe that whoever runs for president is going to have to have a vision of how to grow this economy in a way that’s more shared than it has been,” said Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton intimate who heads the Center for American Progress.
Should Clinton decide to run, her economic message will echo her own experience fighting for economic justice, Tanden said.
Clinton will probably announce her candidacy in early April, several strategists said, seeing no reason to start campaigning in January, as she did in 2007.
In 2008, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses revealed the mismatch between her message of experience and competence and Obama’s insurgent appeal, as well as the depth of problems inside the Clinton camp. She eventually shook up her campaign, firing manager and longtime aide Patti Solis Doyle and sidelining pollster and strategist Mark Penn.
“She’s giving much more thought to what her rationale will be,” said another strategist. “It is a rationale that is not all about her, which I think was part of the problem in ’07,” when the emphasis on Clinton’s readiness for the job obscured the question of why she wanted it.
She has brought in young Democratic operative Robby Mook as her unannounced campaign manager. Clinton has also enlisted Obama pollster Joel Benenson and others who were not part of her circle last time. Longtime Democratic strategist John Podesta has made clear he will be the campaign’s elder statesman and ride herd on any squabbling.
Super PACs run by people outside Clinton’s immediate circle also carry her unofficial blessing.
But much of the old guard also remains, and there has been friction between some of the super PACs and the inner Clinton ring. Some outsiders grumble that longtime personal aide and confidante Huma Abedin exerts too much control.
Other Democrats see a potential red flag in the secrecy that already surrounds Clinton’s decision-making and say they hope she has learned that caution and cloistering did not serve her well last time.
Her willingness to take fat paychecks for speaking appearances and a cozy relationship with Wall Street titans cause unease for strategists predicting a general-election contest focused on middle-class economic striving.
“Tone-deaf,” said one strategist who supported Obama in 2008 and now supports Clinton.
Clinton’s lackluster performance in speeches and interviews last year to promote her State Department memoir, “Hard Choices,” also fanned worries that she has not rebooted her clumsy campaign style.
Republicans pounced — and Democrats cringed — when she told an interviewer that she and former president Bill Clinton were “dead broke” after his two terms in the White House. Her defensive initial response to criticism for that remark fed doubts that her famously thin skin had grown any thicker.
“There was a lot of rust on that bike, and she wasn’t ready,” said one strong Clinton backer, who blames her close advisers for sending her out unprepared.
Republicans argue she still carries the flaws of 2008. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in an interview last week that Clinton is “just not very good at politics. She stumbles all the time. . . . It’s just surprising how many mistakes she makes for someone that’s supposed to be as good as she is.”
Backers concede that Clinton can come across as wooden and cheerless in public, and she has often struggled to show what friends say is genuine warmth and passion for helping people. A few stiff performances on the stump this time could feed a media narrative that Clinton is remote and distant from the needs of ordinary people.
Part of the frustration among Democrats on this point is that even strong Clinton backers recognize she is more comfortable with policy than with politicking, and there is only so much she can do to change the way she comes off in public. But many supporters say she is more at ease as a political figure now.
“Based on the green shoots we are seeing from her to date, the Hillary Clinton we saw in the second half of the 2008 campaign — when she ran the table despite being mathematically eliminated — is the Hillary Clinton we are going to see in 2016,” Lehane said.