Hillary Clinton returns to the campaign trail Thursday with a speech in North Carolina, amid a real tightening in the polls that has raised questions about whether she has been damaged by her temporary disappearance from the national spotlight. And the Clinton campaign is now hinting that it may undertake a change in strategy as the race enters the final stretch.
The Clinton campaign Thursday made a key concession about its analysis of the fundamentals of the race. This concession was made almost in passing, as an afterthought, in a statement released late Wednesday night by Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri:
“One upside to Hillary Clinton’s break from the trail was having time to sharpen the final argument she will present to voters in these closing weeks. So when she rejoins the trail tomorrow, Hillary Clinton will deliver the second in a series of speeches laying out her aspirational vision for the country: that we are “Stronger Together.” Tomorrow’s remarks will focus on what has been at the core of who Hillary Clinton is as a person and the mission of her campaign – how we lift up our children and families and make sure that every child has the chance to live up to their G-d-given potential.
“Our campaign readily admits that running against a candidate as controversial as Donald Trump means it is harder to be heard on what you aspire for the country’s future and it is incumbent on us to work harder to make sure voters hear that vision.”
In one sense, this looks like boilerplate — a non-concession, in that the Clinton campaign is not conceding any problem with its message or proposals, but rather with its inability to convey her message and ideas to voters through the din of media attention paid to Donald Trump. But, looked at in the larger context of this whole campaign, this actually does amount to a real admission about the Clinton campaign’s failure to recognize Trump’s unique power to dominate media coverage, and raises questions about what Team Clinton will do about it.
For many months, the Clinton campaign has assumed that Trump’s fundamental operating strategy was deeply flawed. Trump had publicly stated on many occasions, and in various ways, that he would be able to win the White House largely through media dominance alone. Clinton’s advisers conceded Trump’s ability to blot out attention to Clinton, but also projected public confidence that Trump was only hurting himself with this strategy. The basic idea was that all the crazy, depraved, bigoted and pathologically abusive things Trump said and did to dominate the coverage were also alienating the key voter groups he needed to improve among — college educated whites, especially women; younger voters; and nonwhites, creating limits on his ability to expand his appeal. This writer also made a version of this argument.
After the Dem convention, when Trump was destroying himself amid a battle with the Khan family that saturated the national media coverage, this still looked like it would hold. But now that it’s clear Trump could win — even if Clinton does remain favored — this analysis is now worth revisiting. At various points throughout this campaign, Clinton has opted for less visibility than was perhaps warranted. This goes back to the battle among Dems over the debate schedule, when the Clinton campaign privately pushed for fewer debates, probably to deny exposure to her primary opponents. Many critics pointed out that Clinton should have wanted more debates, to keep herself and Democratic ideas in the public eye, to contrast with the ongoing display of lunacy otherwise known as the GOP primaries.
More recently, in August, Clinton mostly disappeared from the campaign trail to raise money. In the last few days, of course, Clinton was forced to remain out of the public eye by her illness. But now that she’s back on the trail, the campaign is admitting that she needs to do more to break through Trump’s dominance of the media, and to make an affirmative case for her candidacy. That would appear to mean less of an emphasis on simply allowing Trump to romp wildly across the airwaves, and counting on him to continue destroying his appeal in the minds of the voter groups among which he needs to improve and expand.
I don’t know how sincere this concession is, or whether it will lead to any major changes. And to be clear, the Clinton campaign’s original analysis could still prove to be right. Clinton is still ahead, and if she turns in strong debate performances, she could very well go on to win. But with this admission, Clinton and her team have set themselves a new challenge — breaking through the clutter with a more positive case for her candidacy — and it’ll be worth watching how they try to meet it.