How to Attack Hillary Clinton Without Losing the Women’s Vote

An all-female Republican group thinks it knows how to take down Hillary Clinton. Will the GOP listen?

Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
July 31, 2015, 1 a.m.

There’s a for­mula in neg­at­ive polit­ic­al ad­vert­ising that could eas­ily ap­ply against Hil­lary Clin­ton. A nar­rat­or, buf­feted by omin­ous mu­sic and grainy foot­age, ques­tions her Benghazi de­cisions, picks apart con­flicts of in­terest at the Clin­ton Glob­al Ini­ti­at­ive, and re­minds voters that the former first lady sug­ges­ted she was “dead broke” after leav­ing the White House in 2001.

To many GOP ad-makers, this tra­di­tion­al ap­proach fits like a glove. But for a three-wo­man firm of Re­pub­lic­an strategists, it’s a for­mula that ac­com­plishes noth­ing short of giv­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton the pres­id­ency.

Cam­paign vet­er­ans Katie Pack­er Gage, Ash­ley O’Con­nor, and Christine Mat­thews formed Burn­ing Glass Con­sult­ing in 2013 in the af­ter­math of an elec­tion in which Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates up and down the bal­lot ali­en­ated wo­men with an ill-con­ceived com­bin­a­tion of rhet­or­ic and policy. Their idea was that, in the male-dom­in­ated field of Re­pub­lic­an strategy, they could teach GOP can­did­ates the dos and don’ts of talk­ing to wo­men.

Now, they’re try­ing to teach Re­pub­lic­ans how to talk about a wo­man.

A likely match­up in the gen­er­al elec­tion against the former sec­ret­ary of State presents a di­lemma for the GOP: how to at­tack the first fe­male pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee without an­ger­ing the fe­male voters the party needs to vote Re­pub­lic­an. It’s ar­gu­ably the party’s most daunt­ing chal­lenge: Early polling sug­gests that Clin­ton starts her can­did­acy bolstered by a strong ap­peal to wo­men, es­pe­cially the mod­er­ate, sub­urb­an white wo­men who of­ten swing battle­ground states such as Col­or­ado, Pennsylvania, and Vir­gin­ia.

Fun­ded by Amer­ica Rising, the GOP out­side group that acts as the party’s clear­ing­house for op­pos­i­tion re­search on Demo­crats, they have be­gun an on­go­ing series of na­tion­al polls and fo­cus groups to de­term­ine how wo­men feel about Clin­ton—and how they can be con­vinced to vote against her. The early re­turns have been eye-open­ing: Many of the tra­di­tion­al ways that Re­pub­lic­ans (and, they would point out, Demo­crats, too) craft their ads—heavy on facts and harsh in tone—are coun­ter­pro­duct­ive with fe­male voters.

“Tac­tics mat­ter,” said Gage. “What works when you’re com­mu­nic­at­ing to men is very dif­fer­ent than what works when you’re com­mu­nic­at­ing to wo­men.”

That may seem an ob­vi­ous point. But it’s one that of­ten ap­peared to be lost on many GOP strategists, in­clud­ing those in charge of Mitt Rom­ney’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Gage and O’Con­nor both worked on Rom­ney’s team: Gage as a deputy cam­paign man­ager and O’Con­nor as a me­dia strategist and ad-maker.

Both real­ized early, when Rom­ney was still locked in a fight to win the GOP nom­in­a­tion, that the Obama cam­paign was mak­ing head­way in its at­tacks against Rom­ney’s re­cord on re­pro­duct­ive rights, aided by new tech­no­logy that al­lowed them to make a tar­geted ar­gu­ment to young and single wo­men. But the cam­paign was slow to re­spond, they said, be­cause most of its seni­or lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions were filled by men less at­tuned to how wo­men were re­act­ing.

“We were very aware early on that the at­tacks on re­pro­duct­ive rights, that they were get­ting trac­tion,” Gage said. “Be­cause we were hear­ing from our con­tem­por­ar­ies, see­ing it in our Face­book feeds, be­fore they were.”

Gage and O’Con­nor said they tried to push back, ar­guing that the cam­paign’s mes­saging on TV needed to change to ad­opt a softer tone rooted in emo­tion. O’Con­nor cre­ated one ad that fea­tured a wo­man ex­plain­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­cord to her in­fant daugh­ter, shot in a gauzy tone without a nar­rat­or re­peat­ing harsh cri­ti­cisms.

It wasn’t well-re­ceived.

“When Ash­ley first presen­ted it, I loved it, [and Seni­or Rom­ney ad­viser Beth My­ers] loved it,” Gage said. “The guys were all like, ‘It’s not mes­sage-driv­en enough.‘“Š”

“We had to fo­cus-group it no less than four times,” O’Con­nor in­ter­jec­ted. Even­tu­ally, the com­mer­cial did run in north­ern Vir­gin­ia—but only after the cam­paign ad­ded graph­ics.

Gage and O’Con­nor said what they learned dur­ing the Rom­ney cam­paign about reach­ing wo­men has been re­in­forced by the re­search they’ve done for Amer­ica Rising, con­duc­ted by Mat­thews, a poll­ster for former In­di­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Wo­men, they said, are turned off by tra­di­tion­al neg­at­ive ads that state in un­equi­voc­al terms the “facts” of Clin­ton’s re­cord.

The three wo­men de­scribed one re­cent fo­cus group in which fe­male voters were shown a real neg­at­ive TV ad against Clin­ton that ques­tioned her trust­wor­thi­ness. In this case, all of the wo­men im­me­di­ately re­coiled at the tone.

“Once you go over the top with her, it’s just like, ‘Oh, it’s the boy’s club,‘“Š” Mat­thews said. “It’s the at­tack ma­chine, it’s the Re­pub­lic­ans out to get her.”

Gage ad­ded, “If you start with, ‘Don’t trust her,’ then their im­me­di­ate in­stinct is to not trust you.”

Mat­thews tried a dif­fer­ent ap­proach with a later fo­cus group. In­stead of a neg­at­ive ad, she slowly but meth­od­ic­ally laid out a case ex­plain­ing why Clin­ton wasn’t trust­worthy. It didn’t so much in­struct the wo­men what to think as let them make their own con­clu­sion—and, from the GOP’s per­spect­ive, it worked much bet­ter.

Their idea was that, in the male-dom­in­ated field of Re­pub­lic­an strategy, they could teach GOP can­did­ates the dos and don’ts of talk­ing to wo­men.

“How do we dial back our mes­sage a little bit? That’s the ques­tion” said O’Con­nor. “Not telling them what to think, but lead­ing them there.”

Mat­thews’s re­search has led her to con­clude what is also evid­ent in much pub­lic polling: Clin­ton starts in a strong po­s­i­tion with many wo­men. White, col­lege-edu­cated wo­men, she said, are already show­ing more sup­port for Clin­ton than they did in Obama’s reelec­tion cam­paign.

“They identi­fy with her, don’t re­sent her,” she said. “They see her and what she’s ac­com­plished as a good thing.”

They aren’t, however, very fa­mil­i­ar with her re­cord. Many fo­cus groups have fea­tured par­ti­cipants who couldn’t re­mem­ber the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing her re­sponse to the Benghazi at­tacks, for in­stance, or much else about her re­cord at State. Al­most nobody re­membered that she served in the Sen­ate.

Mat­thews, Gage, and O’Con­nor de­clined to de­tail how, ex­actly, they would at­tack Clin­ton if giv­en the op­por­tun­ity to run a cam­paign against her, in part, sug­gest­ing that their on­go­ing re­search hadn’t yet made that clear.

But they said a care­fully craf­ted ar­gu­ment about her trust­wor­thi­ness, one pushed by the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, is something the party should fo­cus on. Voters don’t see Clin­ton as the same old politi­cian be­cause of the his­tor­ic nature of her pres­id­ency—as the think­ing goes, she couldn’t be the usu­al pres­id­ent be­cause none of the oth­er pres­id­ents have been wo­men.

Mak­ing Clin­ton look like just an­oth­er politi­cian, then, is key. And al­leg­a­tions of a con­flict of in­terest at CGI, her home-brew email serv­er, and oc­ca­sion­al tone-deaf re­marks are crit­ic­al to mak­ing that case.

And, as much as at­tack­ing Clin­ton might be tricky for Re­pub­lic­ans, Mat­thews says they do have one ad­vant­age: Her re­search shows that un­like Bill Clin­ton, the former first lady isn’t per­son­ally liked or seen as hav­ing a lot of em­pathy for the av­er­age per­son.

“That pack­age—trust, lack of em­pathy, lack of per­son­al­ity, likab­il­ity—is really a key pack­age,” Mat­thews said.

Re­pub­lic­ans will have a hard time mak­ing that case, wheth­er they listen to Burn­ing Glass or not. The party has struggled to con­nect with wo­men dur­ing pres­id­en­tial cycles, a task made doubly dif­fi­cult when former Sen­ate nom­in­ee Todd Akin sug­ges­ted that rape can’t lead to preg­nancy.

That kind of rhet­or­ic has cre­ated a brand prob­lem for the GOP with wo­men, one any of the party’s can­did­ates will have to struggle to over­come.

“I would say a pretty sig­ni­fic­ant lifesaver for her right now is the Re­pub­lic­an brand,” Gage said. “It’s part of what’s keep­ing her afloat right now. They’re not too anxious to ship her over­board be­cause the Re­pub­lic­an brand is pretty bad.”

Gage said that al­though the even­tu­al nom­in­ee will set the tone for the party’s re­la­tion­ship with wo­men, the can­did­ates run­ning for the nom­in­a­tion will have an im­pact. That in­cludes Don­ald Trump, the front-run­ner in some na­tion­al polls, whose im­pact in the gen­er­al elec­tion has thus far been gauged by the prob­lems he has cre­ated with Latino voters.

Just as dam­aging, she said, might be what he has done with wo­men, who re­sent his bul­ly­ing and in­tol­er­ant tone. His ef­forts, com­bined with those of some of his op­pon­ents, have giv­en the GOP a de­cidedly mixed grade on reach­ing out to wo­men so far.

“Some can­did­ates I’d give an A to. Some I’d give an F to,” Gage said. “So is the av­er­age a C?”

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