Why Chelsea Might Be Just What Hillary Needs in 2016

Her data-driven approach at the Clinton Foundation would be a major asset for her mother’s potential campaign.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton, attend the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) September 24, 2013 in New York.
National Journal
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Alex Seitz Wald
April 17, 2014, 1 a.m.

Chelsea Clin­ton is all about met­rics. After tak­ing a stab at mak­ing lots of money, she de­cided “that wasn’t the met­ric of suc­cess that I wanted in my life.” So she fi­nally got in­to the fam­ily busi­ness, shak­ing up and over­haul­ing the Clin­ton Found­a­tion, which now bears her name along with those of her par­ents.

The story is fairly well know by now to Clin­ton-watch­ers, but she ex­plained her per­spect­ive in more de­tail in a rare in­ter­view giv­en to Fast Com­pany magazine this week. “When she ar­rived [at the fam­ily Found­a­tion] in 2011, she knew her primary role was to ap­ply the data-driv­en skills she had de­veloped in her oth­er jobs to an or­gan­iz­a­tion that had long out­grown its start-up-like in­fra­struc­ture,” the magazine’s Dani­elle Sacks writes.

By then, the daugh­ter of Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton (who an­nounced she was preg­nant Thursday) had worked for McKin­sey & Co., pur­sued a PhD in pub­lic health, and been an in­dustry ana­lyst for a hedge fund. She set about ap­ply­ing the skills she learned in those jobs to a sprawl­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion that had 2,000 em­ploy­ees in 36 coun­tries work­ing for nearly a dozen semi­autonom­ous sub-en­tit­ies.

She ap­proached the found­a­tion like a busi­ness con­sult­ant, com­mis­sion­ing an audit, con­sol­id­at­ing of­fices, in­sti­tut­ing uni­fied per­form­ance met­rics, and stream­lin­ing man­age­ment.

And even while some in­volved with the found­a­tion down­play her suc­cess or gripe about her style, it’s easy to see why many oth­ers in the Clin­ton or­bit ex­pect Chelsea to play a ma­jor role in her moth­er’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, should the former sec­ret­ary of State de­cide to launch a bid after the midterm elec­tions.

Clin­ton’s 2008 cam­paign suffered from many of the same man­age­ment prob­lems that re­portedly plagued the found­a­tion, and a re­booted Clin­ton bid could use a data-driv­en shake-up. In the end, it was a can­did­ate now fam­ous for his em­brace of big data that beat Clin­ton six years ago.

“You can’t meas­ure everything,” Chelsea tells Fast Com­pany, “but you can meas­ure al­most everything.”

The cam­paign also had too many power cen­ters in the form of long­time Clin­ton hands, which led to in­fight­ing and a muddled de­cision mak­ing pro­cess — all is­sues that Chelsea’s pro­ponents say she dealt with when she in­ter­vened in the found­a­tion, and something she could be called on tackle again in 2016. She car­ries the weight of her last name, and in a world where prox­im­ity to the first couple equals power, Chelsea holds the trump card.

Her ap­proach stands in stark con­trast to that of her fath­er, who is fam­ous for his peri­pat­et­ic and per­son­al­ized geni­us. “Some­times Pres­id­ent Clin­ton simply would come in and say, ‘You know, I had a great con­ver­sa­tion with the king of Jordan. We should do something about Jordan.’ And it would be like, Well, now we’ll make Jordan a pri­or­ity,” Clin­ton Glob­al Ini­ti­at­ive Deputy Dir­ect­or Ed Hughes told Fast Com­pany. Chelsea, on the oth­er hand, “wants to see some evid­ence of why we’re mak­ing de­cisions, as op­posed to the an­ec­dotes.”

That’s good ad­vice for any op­er­at­ive work­ing today on cam­paigns, where an­ec­dot­al evid­ence and gut in­tu­ition is be­ing pushed aside by a more em­pir­ic­al ap­proach, as Sasha Is­sen­berg de­tails in his book The Vic­tory Lab.

For the Clin­ton Found­a­tion, this kind of pas­sion­less cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is led to a ma­jor fo­cus on the de­cidedly un­sexy top­ic of diarrhea — “I’m ob­sessed with diarrhea,” Chelsea told a pan­el at South by South­w­est in March. Diarrhea is one of biggest killers in the world, and the found­a­tion de­term­ined it could have big im­pact in terms of sav­ing lives with com­par­ably min­im­al re­sources.

The diarrhea of a polit­ic­al cam­paign might be field and di­git­al op­er­a­tions, tra­di­tion­ally un­sexy dis­cip­lines that have be­come in­creas­ingly im­port­ant in pres­id­en­tial con­tests.

Bey­ond data, Chelsea could of­fer at least two oth­er ma­jor be­ne­fits. One of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s biggest con­cerns head­ing in­to 2016 is turn­ing out the youth vote, which she lost badly to Barack Obama in 2008. Ready for Hil­lary, the pro-Clin­ton su­per PAC, is already lay­ing the ground­work here, and the 34-year-old Chelsea, who did 400 events for her moth­er’s cam­paign in 2008, most fo­cused on youth out­reach, could pick up the bat­on for an ac­tu­al cam­paign.

Chelsea taught her par­ents how to text-mes­sage, after all, and where would the former sec­ret­ary of State be without Texts from Hil­lary?

But per­haps most im­port­ant, who bet­ter to man­age Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton and their far-flung net­work than their own daugh­ter? Bill’s tend­ency to go off-mes­sage dur­ing the 2008 primary cost his wife dearly, and they’ll both need someone in the cam­paign’s lead­er­ship to give them un­var­nished feed­back.

In this video of the three Clin­tons sit­ting down for an hour-long in­ter­view with Jimmy Kim­mel at the Clin­ton Glob­al Ini­ti­at­ive Uni­versity con­fer­ence in Ari­zona last month, you can watch Chelsea al­most man­aging her par­ents in real time, mas­sa­ging their words when they say something that might come off wrong and lead­ing the con­ver­sa­tion in dir­ec­tions that will help them shine.

Chelsea has been role-play­ing polit­ics with her par­ents around the din­ner table since she was 6. Maybe it’s al­most time for her to try the real thing.


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