Uphill Battle in New Hampshire Underscores Clinton’s Message Problem

DERRY, N.H. (The Washington Post) -
Elections Democrat

Hillary Clinton has two large tasks to accomplish in the days ahead. The first and most immediate is to narrow the gap in New Hampshire with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long led the polls here. The second is to sharpen and elevate a message still built more on résumé and determination than on vision and inspiration. The first could prove to be easier than the second, but the second could be the more important to her candidacy in the long run.

Clinton arrived in New Hampshire after her slender victory in Iowa as the underdog to the senator from Vermont in next Tuesday’s primary. At a rally at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Derry on Wednesday morning, Clinton sought to set expectations low by making clear to everyone that she is running from behind. Things are so bleak here, she said, that there were “political pundits who were opining that I should have just skipped New Hampshire.”

The idea that she might skip or even significantly play down New Hampshire is fanciful. She is, after all, the dominant politician in the Democratic Party after President Obama and the front-runner for her party’s nomination. She now has a tougher fight than most people expected when the campaign began last year, but front-runners don’t have the luxury of skipping states such as New Hampshire, particularly ones named Clinton.

New Hampshire has been good to the Clintons for a quarter-century. It is the state that made Bill Clinton the comeback kid after a second-place finish salvaged his candidacy when it was engulfed by scandal in 1992. New Hampshire kept Hillary Clinton alive politically in 2008 by giving her a victory after she had run third, behind Obama and John Edwards, in Iowa.

The Clintons love the Granite State. No one who knows either Hillary or Bill Clinton could imagine them giving anything other than an all-out effort here, no matter what the polls have shown.

So she begins the final push here behind, though by how much won’t be known until the post-Iowa polls begin to drop. As such, lowering expectations and then managing to keep the race as close as possible are part of the strategy for leaving New Hampshire for more hospitable states with some claim of success.

Much can change in a week here, given the predilection of many voters to remain open to changing their minds until they go to cast their ballot. Unlike eight years ago, when the she had only four full days to campaign after the Iowa caucuses, Clinton will have had eight days to turn things around.

She will flood the state this weekend with friends from Arkansas, with staffers from the headquarters, with old pals and ex-Clinton administration staffers from Washington and elsewhere, all tasked with converting undecided voters.

New Hampshire Democrat Terry Shumaker, one of the Clintons’ most loyal advisers here, was in the media area at Clinton’s event in Derry on Wednesday recalling how quickly fortunes can change. At one point, he exclaimed, “Today is the first day of the third legendary Clinton comeback in New Hampshire.” He wasn’t predicting victory but only expressing the fight-to-the-finish mentality of the Clintons.

The odds of overtaking Sanders are long. Sanders has the advantage of being a neighbor in a state where, as Clinton put it Wednesday, voters tend to be “neighborly” by generally awarding nearby politicians with primary victories.

Neighborliness isn’t the only obstacle for Clinton. As long as she is the clear favorite for the nomination, some voters here might feel they have the freedom to reward Sanders, who has captured their imaginations, without fearing they are doing any serious damage to the candidate they still think will become the Democratic nominee.

Clinton began the fight back Wednesday by trying to set the terms of the debate between now and Tuesday. “It’s Senator Sanders and myself in the arena,” she said. “And I want to keep it on the issues. I want to keep it on the contrast between us, our experience, our records, our ideas and the results we that have gotten and can get.”

For voters captured by Sanders’s progressive message, Clinton asked voters to look at her record, claiming she has a consistent champion of progressive causes and issues throughout her career. She said Sanders had delivered “kind of a low blow” by claiming she was a progressive only some of the time.

The argument she hopes will slow Sanders in New Hampshire is to point to a record of getting things done, even if in smaller steps, that he can’t match. She said her record is rooted in a commitment to real progress, not just to tossing out big ideas. “If it’s about our records, hey, I’m going to win in a landslide,” she said.

But campaigns are not just about records and résumé. They are about the hopes and aspiration of the voters, not just what each candidate has accomplished. On that score, Clinton is in need of marrying the best of her experience with a message of hope and aspiration that connects more directly with people.

Clinton is a politician who thinks that big changes often come slowly and in smaller steps. To listen to Clinton in the closing days of the Iowa campaign was to listen to a political candidate delivering a stump speech that seemed to be a variation on a presidential State of the Union address, with a lengthy string of individual policy proposals. But that is hardly an inspirational or aspirational message in the heat of a political campaign.

It’s often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Clinton is a politician who campaigns as she would govern. She makes a virtue of her determination to grind out progress day by day. Her message differs from that of either Sanders or Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who found an audience in Iowa with a positive and uplifting closing speech.

“Their messages are more aspirational,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist. “Hers is more prosaic. It’s rooted in the reality of American politics right now, which is that progress is hard-fought and hard-won. That is true and authentically who she is, and what she is saying is ‘I am better suited to deliver progress in the real world.’ But that is a hard message to deliver in an aspiring way.”

This is the dilemma Clinton has faced from the very beginning. She is who she is, and any attempt to remake her carries as many or more risks as possible rewards. She believes she is the right person for these times. For her committed loyalists, that is more than enough. But a message built on explaining how difficult it can be to get things done is not one likely to excite and energize those looking for something more.