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.
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.