AGAINST THE GRAIN

Hillary Clinton’s Quiet Self-Sabotage

The Democrat’s flight from the media is reinforcing her weaknesses — and putting distance between her and the voters she needs most.

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Josh Kraushaar
May 26, 2015, 4 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is avoid­ing the me­dia at her own per­il.

I say this not as a self-in­ter­ested polit­ic­al journ­al­ist, but as a hard-headed ana­lyst be­fuddled by her cam­paign strategy. She’s hop­ing to emu­late Pres­id­ent Obama’s cool­ness to reach out to less-en­gaged voters, but by avoid­ing ba­sic ques­tions from the press, she comes across as an en­titled celebrity, not a former sec­ret­ary of State get­ting due scru­tiny for a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Far from be­ing the au­then­t­ic politi­cian that Obama worked to be, she’s sidestepped cru­cial ques­tions over where she stands on fast-track trade au­thor­ity, de­tails on her pro­posed im­mig­ra­tion policy, and a pos­sible nuc­le­ar deal with Ir­an. She’s barely even talked about her cent­ral pro­fes­sion­al ac­com­plish­ment — over four years rep­res­ent­ing the coun­try as sec­ret­ary of State. How is this sup­posed to win voters over?

The real­ity is that Clin­ton‘s avoid­ance of the press is a product of weak­ness, not the res­ult of a shrewd cam­paign by­passing the me­dia be­cause it can. She may be avoid­ing short-term pain by stick­ing to her script, but she’s cre­at­ing an im­per­i­al im­age of her­self that’s hard to re­verse—and one the me­dia has every in­cent­ive to re­in­force. If she doesn’t have a cred­ible re­sponse to ex­plain her use of a private un­se­cured email serv­er, Re­pub­lic­ans will eagerly fill the void with at­tack ads cast­ing her in the most un­fa­vor­able light pos­sible. Even if voters aren’t fol­low­ing every de­tail about her con­flicts of in­terest with the Clin­ton Found­a­tion, the con­stant un­fa­vor­able news cov­er­age is bound to trickle down to voters. For a can­did­ate look­ing to find a “warm, purple space” to uni­fy the coun­try, these con­tro­ver­sies hit where it hurts the most.

So far, it’s hard to see how the ig­nore-the-press strategy is work­ing. In fact, there are many ob­vi­ous signs sug­gest­ing that Clin­ton’s aloof­ness has hurt her im­age since kick­ing off her cam­paign. Her fa­vor­ab­il­ity num­bers are now in­dis­tin­guish­able from sev­er­al of the lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial con­tenders. A late-April NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll found an equal num­ber of re­spond­ents view­ing her fa­vor­ably as un­fa­vor­ably (42/42), with her un­fa­vor­ables jump­ing six points in a month’s time. Only one-quarter of voters re­garded her as trust­worthy and hon­est, a double-di­git drop from last year’s stand­ing. Even though she’s a well-known politi­cian, her num­bers have been sur­pris­ingly volat­ile this early in the cam­paign, with no guar­an­tee of sta­bil­iz­ing.

One of the biggest warn­ing signs come from a group that she’s been as­sidu­ously court­ing: Demo­crat­ic mil­len­ni­als. Fol­low Clin­ton’s Twit­ter feed, and you’ll see a steady stream of base-pleas­ing shout-outs for gay rights (“Well done, Ire­land,” she wrote Sat­urday on the coun­try’s gay-mar­riage ref­er­en­dum), celebrity ref­er­ences to un­der­score her hip­ness, even a pro­mo­tion for a Clin­ton-branded pant­suit T-shirt. But a new Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found that her sup­port among young­er Demo­crat­ic voters has dipped sig­ni­fic­antly over the past year. Her fa­vor­ab­il­ity with that core vot­ing group is down to 72 per­cent, the low­est among all the party’s con­stitu­en­cies tested, and a 15-point drop since 2007. For all the talk that the me­dia has be­come passe among young­er voters, it’s likely that the un­fa­vor­able cov­er­age has im­pacted their per­cep­tion of Clin­ton.

Un­der­scor­ing how she’s still a blank slate to many voters was the re­ac­tion from 10 likely Iowa Demo­crat­ic caucus-go­ers in­ter­viewed in a Bloomberg/Purple Strategies fo­cus group this month. Most in­ten­ded to back Clin­ton in the primary and sup­port her in a gen­er­al elec­tion. Many praised her ex­per­i­ence and abil­ity to get things done. But their lack of know­ledge about the can­did­ate was strik­ing. Asked what her biggest ac­com­plish­ment as sec­ret­ary of State was, and there was awk­ward si­lence from the group. Without the ex­ten­ded me­dia en­gage­ment over is­sues, Clin­ton will be re­ly­ing on voters’ par­tis­an­ship and fuzzy feel­ings to win sup­port­ers over. That may be ef­fect­ive for the most re­li­able of Demo­crats, but it’s a tough for­mula to per­suade those who aren’t pay­ing close at­ten­tion.

So far, Clin­ton’s cam­paign is bet­ting on style over sub­stance. It as­sumes that voters are more at­tuned to her so­cial-me­dia pro­nounce­ments than her ac­tu­al po­s­i­tions on is­sues. It plays up Clin­ton’s celebrity — and her sup­port from oth­er fam­ous people — to raise her cul­tur­al cur­rency. It can un­veil base-gin­ning po­s­i­tions on im­mig­ra­tion and gay mar­riage without hav­ing to go through the in­dig­nity of ex­plain­ing the de­tails of any pro­pos­als. It be­lieves the press not only is a nuis­ance, but can be by­passed en­tirely by new tech­no­logy.

All that works when you have an au­then­t­ic can­did­ate with a com­pel­ling mes­sage to sell. But if the real reas­on Clin­ton’s hand­lers don’t want her to meet the press is out of fear — fear that she’ll sound polit­ic­ally tone-deaf or get caught fib­bing — that’s as much a sign of her cam­paign’s anxi­ety as it is a savvy strategy. The fear of mak­ing a mis­take ex­tends to her in­ter­ac­tions with voters: Most of her ap­pear­ances so far have been with sup­port­ers who have been vet­ted and pre­screened by the cam­paign.

With well over a year be­fore the elec­tion, this is the stage of the race when Clin­ton should be work­ing to get more com­fort­able on the trail by tak­ing un­com­fort­able ques­tions. The fact that she’s avoid­ing the press this early on is hardly a sign of con­fid­ence about her polit­ic­al read­i­ness.

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